Attitudes to cancer risks in 2014 and beyond

Written by Linzasaur

The World Health Organization has warned that the globe is facing an imminent cancer “tidal wave,” where by the year 2035 around 24 million people will suffer from the disease.

The World Health Organization has warned that the globe is facing an imminent cancer “tidal wave,” where by the year 2035 around 24 million people will suffer from the disease.

At present, one in five men and one in six women globally will develop cancer before the age of 75 and one in eight men, and one in twelve women, will die from it. Despite advances in cancer treatments and talks of cures being just around the corner, the authors of the 2014 World Cancer Report argue that it is implausible to think we can treat our way out of the problem.

Due to population increase and life expectancy being higher than ever before, it makes sense that there could be more cases of cancer in the future if our attitudes towards diet, drinking, smoking and exercise remain the same.

It is predicted the number of new cases of cancer could soar 70 per cent to nearly 25 million a year over the next 20 years, but half of these are potentially preventable. Up to 50 per cent of new cases of cancer are linked to lifestyle, so the argument is that the focus must now be on preventing new cases rather than striving to find the miracle cure.

Chris Wild, the director of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, told the BBC: “If we look at the cost of treatment of cancers, it is spiralling out of control, even for the high-income countries. Prevention is absolutely critical and it’s been somewhat neglected.”

Tackling the problem

So, the cost of cancer treatment is not likely to drop any time soon. Like most things in life, it is much more cost effective to prevent cancer before it is developed.

Some of the major causes of preventable cancer are smoking, alcohol, infections, obesity and inactivity, radiation and environmental factors such as air pollution. While for some of us this is made common knowledge from a young age, national naivety towards these causes is much higher than expected. Many of us still drink and smoke to excess, just as some refuse to wear sun-cream and crave disproportionate amounts of junk food.

Not only is it naivety that fuels the increase in cancer risk, but the denial that anything bad will happen to us. Everyone thinks they are indestructible until the worst happens, which is an attitude that has to be shifted if the number of cases of cancer is ever going to drop – or does it?

We all have that one relative or friend-of-a-friend that smoked every day in their life and lived to see 98. Smoking and other factors increase the risk of developing cancer, there is no doubt about that, but it is not inevitable. Similarly, we now know that women who inherit a faulty copy of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a highly elevated risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, but they do not always do so.

Scientists are currently researching the idea that some people have genetic protection from cancer, and remain healthy despite their increased risk. Sequencing the irregular genomes of cancer cells can identify some of the mutations that drive the progress of the disease, and the prospect that some individuals may have ‘superhero’ abilities in fighting off cancer is an exciting one.

Still on the hunt for a cure

Unfortunately, studies such as these have limitations. If someone has a faulty gene and never gets ill, then how can anyone identify them as a subject of interest? Also, many people are now going through preventative measures once they are diagnosed with a dangerous gene such as Angelina Jolie’s famous double mastectomy last year.

This gives a very small sample size to work with, but thanks to resourceful scientists and high levels of importance and interest, progress is still being made. For example, in 2004 a group of scientists at the University of Sheffield lead by Angela Cox searched for correlations between breast cancer and the sequences of genes involved in apoptosis (which is the promoted death of faulty cells – one of the body’s natural defence mechanisms against cancer). 

They found that women who inherited a variant called D302H in an apoptosis-related gene were less likely to develop breast cancer.

Since this study, this variant has been associated with a reduced risk of prostate and other cancers, as well as delaying the onset of breast cancer in BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers.

The search for “superhero” genes is still very much in progress but the potential of this research is very exciting. It provides hope that even with ominous predictions from the WHO, steps forward are still being made in cancer treatments and we have more options and prospects than ever before. 

What do you think? Can a cure for cancer be discovered? What is the best way to approach it now? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: pfala / Flickr