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Preventable risk factors account for nearly half of all cancer deaths

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Preventable risk factors account for nearly half of all cancer deaths

Cancer deaths due to preventable risk factors rose by 20.4 per cent over the last decade and now account for nearly half of all fatalities, new research published in The Lancet has found.

The study found that factors including drinking alcohol, being overweight and smoking were responsible for nearly 4.45 million cancer deaths globally in 2019, compared to 3.7 million in 2010. Researchers from the University of Washington’s school of medicine investigated how 34 risk factors contributed to deaths from 23 cancer types.

The study found that 50.6 per cent of male cancer deaths were due to risk factors, whilst only 36.3 per cent of female cancer deaths were affected. The leading cause for both men and women was tracheal, bronchus and lung cancer, which accounted for 36.9 per cent of all cancer deaths associated with risk factors. For men, this was followed by colon and rectum cancer (13.3 per cent), oesophageal cancer (9.7 per cent) and stomach cancer (6.6 per cent). Cancer types with the largest effect on women were cervical cancer (17.9 per cent), colon and rectum cancer (15.8 per cent) and breast cancer (11 per cent).

Researchers say that their findings indicate that cancer is still a rising public health challenge, naming smoking as the largest preventable risk factor (accounting for 33.9 per cent of deaths) followed by alcohol consumption and a high BMI. 

“Smoking continues to be the leading risk factor for cancer globally, with other substantial contributors to cancer burden varying,” said Dr Christopher Murray, co-senior author of the study and director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s school of medicine.

He added: “Our findings can help policymakers and researchers identify key risk factors that could be targeted in efforts to reduce deaths and ill health from cancer regionally, nationally, and globally.”

According to Professor Diana Sarfati and Dr Jason Gurney from the University of Otago in New Zealand – who were not involved in the study – this research serves to prove that the primary way to work towards an end goal of beating cancer is to target these preventable risks.

“The primary prevention of cancer through eradication or mitigation of modifiable risk factors is our best hope of reducing the future burden of cancer,” they said.  “Reducing this burden will improve health and wellbeing and alleviate the compounding effects on humans and the fiscal resourcing pressure within cancer services and the wider health sector.”

Pharmacy teams are often the first port of call for patients wanting to tackle risk factors such as smoking and weight gain.

Here is a selection of TM articles and learning content that could help you broach these subjects at work:

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