World Cancer Day: Prevention is key to beating cancer. And prevent it we can


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Cancer is a disease of old age. The news that half of us are now living long enough to develop cancer should therefore be welcomed. It is a sign of progress. We have to die of something. On the other hand, many cancers still kill people before their time. And cancer imposes an immense and growing burden on individuals, families and the NHS. If we do nothing we are in danger of being overwhelmed.

There were 331,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed in 2011 in the UK, up by 23 per cent among men and 43 per cent among women since the mid-1970s. The bill for treating them was put at £5.6bn by an Oxford University study published in 2012 and is projected to rise by more than half over the next decade. The rate of increase is so great, the disease so challenging and the care so costly that treating our way out of the problem is not an option. Prevention is the key.

Although ageing is the critical factor behind cancer’s growth, our lifestyle is also to blame. Cigarettes, alcohol, fast food and sedentary living are all fuelling its growth. The single most effective measure against cancer is to stop smoking – yet about 10 million people in the UK still smoke. Four in 10 cancers could be prevented by changes in lifestyle, according to Cancer Research UK, which published the latest figures.

“That is something we can all aim for personally so we can stack the odds in our favour,” said Harpal Kumar, the charity’s chief executive.

Exhortations are not enough. We have known cancer is preventable for at least the past 30 years. Have we acted on it? Yes, smoking is down. But obesity? Alcohol consumption? Sedentary living? Overall, the incidence of cancer has soared, independently of the ageing population. To combat cancer, governments must act. A sugar tax, minimum price for alcohol and urban plans to encourage walking and cycling would be a start. Only then can we hope to stem the tide.