Why I’m optimistic about cancer

Photo: Union for International Cancer Control (UICC)

Today is World Cancer Day.

Organized by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and established in 2000 through the Paris Charter, World Cancer Day marks a time for the global community to come together in the fight against a disease that affects all of us. Cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, with 1 in 6 deaths due to this disease. With the number of new cases expected to rise 70% in the next two decades, it’s more important than ever before to take collective action against a disease that has robbed too many lives.

The statistics might seem bleak but today we have many reasons to celebrate. Here are three:

  1. We now know more than ever before about how to stop cancer before it starts. We know that between 30% and 50% of all cancer cases can be prevented. We have more information at our disposal about risk factors and specific measures that we can take to reduce our chances of getting the disease in the first place. This information has led to highly effective public health policies such as bans on asbestos and vaccination programs to protect against HPV and HBV which reduce our exposure to cancer-causing agents. And the best news is that up to one third of cancers can be prevented by factors that are completely within our control: diet, body weight and physical activity.
  2. We have more tools at our disposal to detect cancer earlier, treat cancer more effectively and make life better for those living with cancer. Decades of research have yielded more promising methods to treat cancer which help to improve survival rates while minimizing negative side effects. A new blood test has the potential to more effectively diagnose ovarian cancer, which is notorious for being one of the more difficult cancers to detect. Immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s immune system to more effectively attack cancer cells, is beginning to change the way we treat certain cancers. Thanks to resources that empower countries to implement effective palliative care programs, more people living with cancer will have access to treatments that will relieve pain and enhance their quality of life.
  3. We’re working more closely together to fight cancer. More organizations are realizing that collaboration is key to beating cancer. Earlier this week, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation officially merged, allowing for more coordinated efforts in funding research and providing support services. In the United States, the government’s Cancer Moonshot initiative brings several actors in the cancer space together to share their data and expertise to accelerate research breakthroughs.

The theme for this year’s World Cancer Day is “We can. I can.” Although the statistics point to a rise in the number of new cancer cases in the coming years, this does not mean that there is nothing we can do to reverse the trend. Here are some concrete actions we can all do right now:

  1. Quit smoking. Or if you are a non-smoker, help your loved ones to quit. The link between tobacco smoke and cancer is clear. Quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do to reduce your risk. Not sure how to start? If you are in Canada, check out this list of smoking cessation programs that are available in your province.
  2. Get active. Physical activity helps us to maintain a healthy body weight and helps protect against many types of cancer. Getting active for at least 30 minutes every day will have a huge impact. To get started, try sitting less, taking the stairs more often, and getting off the bus a stop early to walk the remaining distance to your destination.
  3. Maintain a healthy diet. Many components of our diet may put us in a greater risk for certain cancers. Alcohol, and red & processed meats are known to increase cancer risk while sugar is a leading culprit when it comes to being overweight. Aim to follow these recommendations for a balanced diet.
  4. Advocate for life-saving public policies. Advocacy has the potential to translate the information we now know about cancer into large-scale, practical policies that benefit entire populations. Call on your local government leaders to enact policies that discourage tobacco consumption, limit exposure to known carcinogens, ban the use of cancer-causing substances, and increase access to vaccines, drugs and treatment, especially for those who are unable to afford them. If you are in Canada, you can sign an online petition on a number of issues that the Canadian Cancer Society is currently advocating for.

It’s time that we stand up to cancer. We are not powerless. Together, we can change the trajectory of cancer and save more lives.