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Research in cancer prevention

We already know a lot about how to prevent cancer. If we, as a society, put everything we know into practice through healthy lifestyle choices and policies that protect the public, we could prevent about half of all cancers. But we still need to learn more about how the disease develops and how we can stop it before it starts.

It can take years of studying large groups of people to decide what factors may prevent or lower our risk of developing cancer. Researchers often find it useful to study groups of people who have a higher than average risk of developing certain types of cancer to find the best ways to try to prevent it. Their risk may be high because they have a precancerous condition, a family history of cancer or because they smoke. Researchers are also trying to find out how to prevent cancer from coming back in people who have been treated for the disease.

Some research to prevent cancer is looking at these factors.

Diet

Research has shown that a diet high in vegetables and fruit may help prevent cancer. Research has also shown that a diet high in red meat or processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. The exact relationship between what you eat and cancer needs more study, but there is scientific proof that some food groups, individual foods and specific substances in foods can lower the risk of developing cancer.

Physical activity

The exact relationship between physical activity and cancer needs more study, but there is scientific evidence linking being active with a lower risk of developing cancer. We still need to learn more about what types of physical activity are best for reducing cancer risk.

Sedentary behaviour

Sedentary behaviour refers to activities that need very little physical movement and don’t use much energy, such as sitting at a desk or lying down for long periods of time. Sedentary behaviour is different from not getting enough physical activity.

Research shows there is a link between sitting too much and a higher risk of cancer. But more study is needed to understand how sedentary behaviour is linked to specific cancers and to find helpful ways to move more and sit less.

Chemoprevention

Taking certain supplements such as vitamins or certain drugs may help prevent cancer or prevent it from coming back. This area of study is called chemoprevention. Chemoprevention is being studied in people with an average risk of cancer, but researchers mostly focus on how to prevent cancer in people who have a higher than average risk of developing the disease.

Vitamin D

Many studies show a link between vitamin D and cancer risk. There is growing scientific evidence that vitamin D may lower the risk of some types of cancer. The evidence that vitamin D lowers cancer risk is strongest for colorectal cancer, but we need more research to know for sure.

Other vitamins and supplements

Researchers are trying to find out if taking certain vitamins or supplements can help prevent cancer. They include the following:

  • vitamin A (including retinoids and carotenoids)
  • vitamin E
  • folic acid and other B vitamins
  • selenium
  • calcium

We need more research to find out if vitamins or supplements can prevent certain types of cancer.

Statins

Statins are drugs used to lower your cholesterol level. They do this by blocking an enzyme that the body needs to make cholesterol. Lowering cholesterol levels can help treat and prevent heart disease. Researchers are trying to find out if statins also help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

Research has shown that statins may block cell functions involved in how cancer develops, grows and spreads. To know for sure if taking statins can prevent certain types of cancer, we need more research.

Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs are used for pain, such as headaches or backaches. They may also be used for more severe pain in chronic conditions like arthritis or sciatica. Common NSAIDs include acetylsalicylic acid (ASA, Aspirin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and celecoxib (Celebrex). NSAIDs lessen inflammation and stop prostaglandins from being made by the body. Prostaglandins control cell growth, cell death and the development of blood vessels.

Research shows that people who take NSAIDs have a lower risk of developing colorectal cancer. We need more research to better understand the role NSAIDs may play in preventing cancer. Currently, NSAIDs are not recommended as a way to prevent colorectal cancer.

Metformin

Metformin (Glucophage) is a drug used to treat diabetes. Metformin works by lowering glucose levels in the blood. People who have diabetes have a higher than average risk of developing cancer. Studies show that metformin may lower the risk of some types of cancer in people with diabetes. Researchers are trying to find out if metformin can lower the risk of cancer in people who have a high risk of developing the disease.

Using cancer treatment drugs to prevent cancer

Researchers are trying to find out if drugs that treat cancer can help prevent it. Researchers study which genes are changed or mutated in people who have precancerous conditions that can lead to cancer if they’re not treated. Then they try to treat the precancerous conditions – and prevent cancer – with the same drugs that are used to treat people with cancer who have these same gene changes or mutations.

Looking at how a person’s genes can be used to help prevent, diagnose and treat cancer is called personalized medicine.

Vaccines to prevent cancer

Researchers continue to study vaccines that may help prevent cancer. We already know from research that humanpapilloma virus (HPV) vaccines help protect against cervical cancer and other cancers linked to HPV including vaginal, vulvar and anal cancer. Researchers are trying to make HPV vaccines that help protect against more types of HPV.

They are also trying to develop vaccines that protect against colorectal cancer in people with Lynch syndrome and vaccines to protect against breast cancer in women who carry the BRCA gene mutation. Vaccines are also being developed to help prevent pancreatic cancer and lung cancer by targeting specific gene mutations linked to these cancers.

precancerous

Having the potential to develop into cancer.

A precancerous condition can (or is likely to) become cancerous (malignant).

Also called premalignant.

Lynch syndrome

A genetic condition caused by mutations in certain chromosomes. Lynch syndrome is associated with an increased risk of developing colon cancer and other cancers.

Also called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC).

Stories

Ray Ellis in fireman gear Because of smoke inhalation and exposure to toxic chemicals, I live with the fear of cancer virtually every day.

Read Ray's story

Taking action against all cancers

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The latest Canadian Cancer Statistics report found that of all newly diagnosed cancers in 2017, half are expected to be lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers. Learn what you can do to reduce the burden of cancer.

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