Global cancer research database reveals what you can do to lower your risk

By the year 2030, the number of people diagnosed annually with cancer worldwide could reach 21 million. This week, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) is meeting in Montreal to discuss how to diminish the rising tide of cancer.

The long-term solution, experts think, lies in another startling statistic: that 40% of cancers stem from factors that we can control.

At the meeting, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund International (AICR/WCRF) rolled out the latest update to the world’s largest central database of research on how lifestyle choices influence the risk of cancer. Key causes of “preventable” cancer include unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, being overweight, alcohol and tobacco, and not taking full advantage of preventive vaccinations and screenings.

“The fact is that changes in our lifestyle can powerfully protect us against cancer,” says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor in chief of the Harvard Health Letter and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “In fact, we can do more to protect ourselves against cancer than our doctors can do for us.”

Unfortunately, even the healthiest lifestyle won’t immunize you against cancer. “Age and genetics outweigh many of these risk factors,” says Dr. William Kormos, editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch and a primary care physician at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

For example, having a first-degree relative—a parent or sibling—with colon or prostate cancer could double your risk. At the same time, the healthier your choices, the more benefit you are likely to gain.

“What science needs to do now is figure out how these lifestyle factors influence the risk of cancer,” Dr. Komaroff says. “What are the changes in body chemistry caused by these lifestyle factors that influence the development of cancer? If we can figure that out, we might identify targets for new anti-cancer drugs.”

In all the hopeful discussion of lifestyle’s role in cancer, it is important to remember that millions of people are newly diagnosed every year. For them, the mere mention of “preventable cancer” can feel like an indictment.

“Someone who has unfortunately developed cancer, and who may have had an unhealthy lifestyle, can feel that they are being blamed,” Dr. Komaroff says. “It’s bad enough to learn you have cancer, particularly if it is of a kind that is likely to end your life prematurely. To add guilt on top of that is just adding to the suffering.”

But the lesson from Montreal is not about laying blame, but creating hope. Taking the best care of your body as you can is still the cheapest and one of the most effective ways to save the lives of people not yet in the grip of cancer.


  1. Kelly Croftan

    Good post. Off-late preventing cancer and finding the proper medicine for cancer has become highly impossible. When we can only prevent cancer to some extent means, its really like a boon. Following proper diet and regular exercises are plays an effective role in preventing.

  2. Tambre Leighn/coaching by tambre

    Very well written article. I attended the conference not only to present on the benefits of life coaching to increase quality of life for survivors but to better understand current trends and the importance of prevention that healthy lifestyle choices can support. I feel you presented a balanced view of several sides of this new call to action. We actually saw slides taking the percentage of preventable cancers close to 50%…the good news is that individuals can seem to impact their long term health through the choices they make. However, to your point about care re: those already diagnosed or those who receive a diagnosis in the future, blame gets us no where and this call to action should not be about finger pointing.

    Behavior and lifestyle changes can be challenging which is where coaching can make a significant difference. Focusing on what occurred in the past to get to this point can, when viewed through a constructive lens, educate and inform us but turning it into blaming others or situations where survivors feel guilty for being “at cause” for their cancer serves no one. Cancer is a complex disease and has many contributing factors. Focusing on what we can do to create the best health possible is empowering and supportive. Turning this helpful data about the impact of lifestyle choices into self-blame or blaming others is not a direction I’d like to see this go…so thank you for raising this potential concern.

  3. Amy

    The rising number of those who suffer from this terrible disease is alarming. The least we can do is to support the organizations whose members are working hard every day to relieve the sufferings of cancer patients and raise awareness all around the country. This weekend is a perfect opportunity for all Torontonians to participate in the event called the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers taking place in our city. Let’s show our support to those who really need it.

  4. Vince

    “Key causes of “preventable” cancer include unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, being overweight, alcohol and tobacco, and not taking full advantage of preventive vaccinations and screenings.” The only anti-cancer vaccine that I am aware of are the HPV vaccines what effect they will have will be apparent in about 30 years .Will they be ‘lifesavers’ ? Screening test… serious question about the ‘lifesaving’ results of both the PSA test and mammograms : the two big dogs in the kennel: again have been raised. The one vitamin: vitamin d which has been show to reduce colon cancer even at the small dose used in the WHI study is missing.Perhaps a bit more science and a little less sales is needed.

  5. Aidan Bertie

    Nice post, I like your post very much.
    Thanks for sharing.
    The Doctors Health Press

  6. david walpole

    Dear Sirs,
    I have a chemistry degree,and have been farming sheep and cattle for 43 years.
    NZ.soils are deficient in a no. of trace elements,copper cobalt and selenium especially, so we are familiar with, and ensure, that our animals receive enough of them. NZ. people have high cancer rates which I have been investigating over the last 12 years. When i read the details of the Nutritional Prevention of Cancer trial done in Florida I was ecstatic.The Dec 1995 JAMA. report of this, shows cancer rates were about halved for bowel, lung and prostate, by simply raising selenium levels.
    The NZ. population has low selenium levels, and so have many other places,eg. UK, Spain, France, Greece, assessed by finding that men have prostate problems in all these places.
    Another man and I, decided to do a trial taking our selenium level up to 2 micromol/lt. from our normal NZ. level of 1 Then I had my level measured periodically and when it got to about 1.7, I noticed my prostate problems of slow flow and dribbles went away!!! also fingernails grew faster [1mm/week], skin became more supple, less papery,and coition improved markedly!!! I can’t measure cancer rates, but all the trials that i’ve found support these results or they have some flaw in them such as the SELECT
    result which was poorly designed with all the men having high levels at the beginning, or levels not being taken high enough, as is occurring today in Finland.
    So the answer is raise your selenium level to 1.6—1.9 micromol/ eating 2 Brazil nuts a day for 6 weeks or take organic selenium tablets 200 microgms/day. Inorganic selenium drops 200 microgms/day are a cheaper ongoing source which I have used for 12 years, 1.7 was my latest test result. Selenium also benefits asthma, eczema,
    and many other unseen parts. Take responsibility for your health put in the effort. Most doctors were not taught nutrition.
    The results are marvelous. David Walpole.

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