Almost half of all cancers that lead to death can be attributed to risk factors that are avoidable, a new study found, with researchers advising that governments invest in supporting environments that minimize exposure to certain cancer risk factors.
The study, which looked at cancer cases from 2019 and was published in The Lancet, found that 44 percent of cancer deaths were what researchers referred to as risk-attributable cancer deaths, meaning cancers that could be linked to higher exposure to certain risk factors for the disease.
On a global scale, the leading risk factors were smoking, alcohol and high BMI in descending order. These risk factors were the same for both male and female patients.
The same study found that 42 percent of cancer-related disability-adjusted life-years — the number of years lost to not living at full health or with a disability — could be attributed to risk factors.
The burden of risk-attributable cancers varied across regions, with smoking, unsafe sex and alcohol being the leading risk factors in lower-income, socially disadvantaged countries. Higher-income countries tended to reflect the global risk factors, according to researchers.
“Although some cancer cases are not preventable, governments can work on a population level to support an environment that minimises exposure to known cancer risk factors,” researchers said.
“Primary prevention, or the prevention of a cancer developing, is a particularly cost-effective strategy, although it must be paired with more comprehensive efforts to address cancer burden, including secondary prevention initiatives, such as screening programmes, and ensuring effective capacity to diagnose and treat those with cancer.”
Researchers noted that “substantial progress” has been made in reducing tobacco exposure, particularly through interventions like taxation, regulations and smoke-free policies globally. Similar efforts have been made to address risks such as alcohol use and unsafe sex.
“Behavioural risk factors are strongly influenced by the environment in which people live and individuals with cancer should not be blamed for their disease,” said researchers.