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For every cancer prevented, that’s one person who’s saved from the life-changing challenges of facing the disease.

In fact, more than 4 in 10 cases of cancer are linked to our lifestyles, and to and other factors such as infections, our jobs, and whether we take treatments like hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or the Pill, so there’s plenty of scope for preventing the disease.

Last week, we announced a £6 million Cancer Prevention Initiative, with half the funding provided by the BUPA Foundation.

We asked Dr Jean King, our Director of Strategic Projects and Dr Lucy Davies, our Cancer Prevention Officer, for their thoughts on the initiative and the importance of preventing cancer.

What is the Initiative? And why’s it so important?

“Cancer prevention hasn’t always received the same level of focus, funding-wise, as treatment in the past,” says King. “Research tells us that prevention is not only down to individual behaviour. Other things that affect health include promoting changes in social factors and the environment.”

To encourage more spending in this area that will really help change people’s behaviour, King says we need to have compelling evidence to show that it will lead to healthier, happier populations.

So one of the core elements of the new initiative is two new funding streams:

  • A three-year Fellowship Award to fund outstanding scientists and health care professionals to research behavioural changes that can prevent people getting cancer.
  • A 12-month Innovation Award to draw on a diverse range of experts to develop pioneering new ways of researching cancer prevention.

“There have been lots of enquires about our cancer prevention fellowship scheme and we’ve already received some high quality applications,” says Davies.

The funding will also create an in-house Policy Research Centre to drive good research practice into action.

On top of this, the team running the initiative will be able to draw on the advice of an International Advisory Board, including its Chairman Sir Michael Marmot’s expert knowledge of health inequalities and population breast screening programmes, and also that of Dr Linda Bauld, who is leading the initiative following her pioneering work into tobacco control measures – something that’s hugely important to the initiative’s success.

“We want to tap into as much expertise as possible because this is such a new area we really want to benefit from knowledge in other countries,” says Davies.

Why is prevention research so important?

The numbers are stark. In the UK, more than 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2011. But that’s set to increase further over the next few decades.

That will put a huge burden on the NHS, especially as treatments get more expensive. So finding out how to prevent the disease becomes ever more critical. For Davies, the idea is to do everything possible to reduce people’s risk of developing cancer and so limit the number of people being diagnosed with the disease.

“Prevention has to happen – we can’t sustain just treating people,” she says.

One of the initiative’s focuses, as might be expected, will be on tobacco control policies.

Keeping smoking rates in decline

Tobacco is the biggest preventable cause of cancer. King points out that decades of research have shown that the links between smoking and multiple forms of cancer are indisputable, with half of all long-term tobacco users dying from their addiction.

Reducing smoking prevalence in the UK by just 1 per cent, she says, would save 3,000 lives per year from cancer alone.

So discouraging people, particularly children, from becoming addicted to tobacco is essential to reduce their lifetime cancer risk – and that’s one of the reasons behind our ‘Setting the Standard’ campaign – to give children one less reason to start smoking.

Standardised tobacco packaging is a vital, evidence-based policy, which will reduce the appeal of tobacco marketing to children and in doing so, the terrible burden of tobacco addiction on generations to come. In Australia, in the period during which standard packs went on the shelves, smoking rates fell to an all-time low.

But to keep rates moving downwards, we will need new tobacco control policies, based on new evidence – and the expertise to get them implemented.

Preventing cancers across the board

But it’s not just about tobacco.

We know we can do more to better understand the other known causes of cancer that may be preventable.

“The level of evidence we have on the links between tobacco smoking and cancer didn’t happen by chance, and we want to try and replicate that model for the other known causes of cancer that are potentially preventable,” says King.

Among these are poor diet, obesity and alcohol consumption, which are linked to more than 60,000 cases of cancer every year. Understanding these risk factors, along with many others, is of huge importance. As the evidence builds, our initiative will be looking for new ways to develop this knowledge into the most effective policies to raise awareness and promote behaviour change. “We need a stronger evidence base to decide which policies are most effective in those areas”, adds King

Tackling social deprivation

It should never be the case that where someone lives increases their risk of getting cancer.

And yet, as we recently showed, income deprivation is responsible for up to 19,000 excess deaths from cancer in England every year. For Davies, the issue of inequality is a massive problem for cancer prevention.

As a result, one of the initiative’s first priorities will be to work with hard-to-reach groups, to learn how to support people in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, without them being inhibited by social factors beyond their control.

“We’ve just run our first Innovation Workshop where we funded eight exciting new ideas that we hope will help prevent cancer in people who are hard to reach.” Davies says.

“The projects are targeting issues like HPV in young men, alcohol consumption in middle-aged women, using photography to understand the barriers to healthy lifestyles faced by teen mums, and how the success of community-led exercise such as ‘Parkrun’ could be translated into other interventions.

“We look forward to seeing how these initiatives develop over the next 12 months.”

By translating this research into key political priorities for the future the programme can encourage local and Government support to promote cancer prevention. This means that regardless of social circumstances, we can begin to support everybody in reducing their lifetime risk of cancer.

Accelerating progress in our fight against cancer

Cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years, but when it comes to preventing cancer there remains a huge amount at stake.

This initiative is a vital part of this fight. It will empower people to make lifestyle changes that reduce their cancer risk.

As King says, “there is so much to play for”.


  • Dan Hunt works in the Policy Department at Cancer Research UK