Society study looking at the role of avoidable cancer risk factors

19 February 2015

Toronto -

Imagine if the number of Canadians expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 30 years could be cut in half. It’s not such a far-fetched idea.

A new study, funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, will for the first time determine the most comprehensive estimates of how many cancer cases could be avoided if Canadians improve their lifestyles and reduce their exposure to environmental carcinogens.

Modifiable risk factors for cancer include:

  • smoking
  • body weight
  • inactivity 
  • poor diet
  • overexposure to the sun and artificial ultraviolet rays
  • infections, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • air pollution

Research has already shown that about half of all cancers could be prevented through healthy, active living and public policies that protect health. However current estimates linking specific modifiable lifestyle and environmental risk factors with cancer occurrences are fragmented across the country. The depth and reliability of this information varies depending on the province, risk factor, and cancer type. When complete, this new study will provide the most comprehensive and accurate breakdown of cancer risk factors across the country. This information can then be used to promote the creation of the most effective and targeted programs and policies to reduce our risk of developing cancer.

“The opportunity to work in partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society on cancer prevention is exciting and unique for our team,” says Dr Christine Friedenreich, Head, Division of Preventive Oncology in the University of Calgary’s Department of Oncology, and a lead investigator on the study. “We’ve never had a grant of this kind that brings together researchers with the healthcare providers and policy makers who can directly apply the results of our study to programs and policies that will reduce cancer incidence.”

“Understanding how many cancers cases are a result of avoidable risk factors can help inform today’s prevention priorities and identify where public policies would have the greatest impact,” says Dr Robert Nuttall, Assistant Director of Cancer Control Policy at the Canadian Cancer Society and a partner on the study. “Healthy living is the best recipe for avoiding cancer. It’s never too late to start practicing healthy behaviours.”

Cancer prevention:

What we know and don’t know

Smoking, excess weight, poor diet and lack of physical activity are believed to account for the greatest number of preventable cancers. However less is known about the impact of other factors on cancer incidence rates – factors such as alcohol consumption, HPV and hepatitis B infections, and environmental exposure to air pollution and ultraviolet rays.

The research team will determine the number of Canadians who are exposed to each of these risk factors using national and provincial databases and surveys, and will identify the magnitude of cancer risk using published literature. Building on the knowledge we already have, this new study will determine the impact of modifiable risk factors on the number of cancer cases diagnosed in Canada now and in the future. The national data will also be broken down by province and territory.

“We cannot sit back and wait for the wave of new cancer cases we’re expecting as the Canadian population continues to grow and age. Our goal is to stop as many cancers as we can before they even start,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director of Research, Canadian Cancer Society. “The results from this research will help reduce the burden of cancer in Canada by providing crucial information for the development of cancer prevention policies; identifying priority areas for cancer prevention research; and setting priorities for public health education programs.”

Other investigators on the study

  • Darren Brenner, Alberta Health Services, Calgary
  • Prithwish De, Cancer Care Ontario, Toronto
  • Paul Demers, Cancer Care Ontario, Toronto
  • Eduardo Franco, McGill University, Montreal
  • Perry Hystad, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon
  • Will King, Queen's University, Kingston
  • Paul Villeneuve, Carleton University, Ottawa
  • Stephen Walter, McMaster University, Hamilton

The Canadian Cancer Society is a national community-based organization of volunteers whose mission is the eradication of cancer and the enhancement of the quality of life of people living with cancer. When you want to know more about cancer, visit our website www.cancer.ca or call our toll-free, bilingual Cancer Information Service at 1 888 939-3333.

For more information, please contact:

Christine Harminc

Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations

Canadian Cancer Society

Phone: 416 934-5340