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Stopping Cancer Before It Starts

More than half of all cancer is preventable, and society has the knowledge to act on this information today, according to Washington University researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

In an article published in Science Translational Medicine in March 2012, investigators outline obstacles they say stand in the way of making a huge dent in the cancer burden in the United States and around the world. “We actually have an enormous amount of data about the causes and preventability of cancer,” says epidemiologist Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman.

What we know, according to Colditz and his co-authors, is that lifestyle choices—from tobacco use to diet and exercise—play a significant role in causing cancer.

For instance, smoking alone is responsible for a third of all cancer cases in the United States; excess body weight and obesity account for another 20 percent.

But beyond individual habits, the research team argues that the structure of society itself influences the extent of the cancer burden and can be changed to reduce it. The team lists a number of obstacles in the way of broad cancer-prevention strategies, including:

  • Skepticism that cancer can be prevented
  • Research that focuses on treatment, not prevention
  • Societal factors that affect health, such as tobacco policy and government subsidies that don’t do enough to discourage unhealthy behavior and, especially in low-income communities, make unhealthy choices more accessible
Nevertheless, Colditz and his colleagues say that broad change is possible. One example is the relatively quick elimination of unhealthy trans fats from the national diet. And the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has reported that lung cancer rates are declining in both men and women, supporting the benefits of tighter tobacco control policy.

To learn more about cancer prevention, visit

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