Just How Many Cancers Are Preventable?

On Tuesday, World Cancer Day, the preventability of cancer made big headlines around the world. Here at AICR, we were pleased to see that.
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After all, we’ve dedicated ourselves to funding and analyzing research, which shows we can prevent one-third of the most common cancers — over 374,000 U.S. cancer cases every year — by changes to our diet, physical activity and weight.

But you may have seen headlines with different numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) saying that one half of all cancers are preventable. We heard from some of you who were confused because AICR says we can cut the number of cancers by one third.

So, which is it? How many cancers don’t have to happen: one-third, or one-half? Who’s right, AICR or WHO?

The answer, of course, is that we both are.

AICR focuses on the role of diet, physical activity and weight management in cancer risk. We fund, collect and analyze this research, we continually add new findings to our database, and we release periodic reports that judge that global evidence.

When we estimate that one-third of the most common cancers are preventable by making changes to diet, physical activity and weight management alone, that number grows directly out of our own reports. Other organizations, including WHO, incorporate our evidence-based conclusions in their reports.

But WHO and its cancer-focused arm, the International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) has a wider focus than AICR. They crunch many of the same numbers that we do along with findings from studies involving lifestyle factors that AICR does not monitor. Factors like smoking, HPV infection, sun exposure, and more.

That’s where the two different fractions come from: We look at diet, physical activity and weight, while WHO looks at all aspects of lifestyle. And we conclude the same thing: That we can, every one of us, take steps to cut our risk. The bottom line – the common denominator – is the encouraging fact that we are not helpless before cancer.

We’ve developed tools and information to help people make those changes, and live with lower cancer risk.


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