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Cancer death rate down in Canada but incidence of cancer on the rise?

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One would be hard pressed to find a person who has not been touched or affected in some way by cancer. We all know someone who has battled it in some form. Most of us have probably lost a loved one to this indiscriminate disease. It is the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 7.6 million deaths in 2008 (World Health Organization). In 2011 cancer overtook heart disease to become the leading cause of death in Canada as well.

The Canadian Cancer Society recently released Canadian Cancer Statistics and media outlets ran with the report’s finding that the cancer death rate in Canada is going down, resulting in nearly 100,000 lives saved over the last 20 years (1988-2007). Lower smoking rates, better screening and treatment are credited for the drop in death rate.

Yes we have made great strides in screening and early detection. Research and technology have led to improved treatment and the disease can oftentimes be cured. This is a huge step in the battle against cancer. We are improving our odds once the disease has been detected.

But just as important in this report is another statistic, one that has received far less attention than the death rate decreasing.  In 2012 there will be an estimated 186,400 new cases of cancer. This number is up 12,600 from the 173,800 estimated new cases in 2010. This is a substantial increase that is worthy of our attention as well – part of which is due to an aging population, but that can’t be the only reason for the increase.

According to Gillian Bromfield, Director, Cancer Control Policy, Canadian Cancer Society, “A large body of evidence has accumulated over the last 30 years showing that about half of cancers can be prevented.” That’s a staggering number. If half of cancers can be prevented and new cases of cancer are on the increase in Canada and through-out the world – it’s time to step up the battle by focusing on prevention.

A worrying trend seen in this year’s report is the rise in incidence of certain rare cancers such as liver, thyroid and kidney – which can be attributed to a number of factors – one of them being obesity. It’s no secret that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and poor diets are affecting our waistlines.

A 2011 Statistics Canada study suggests one in four Canadian adults is clinically obese (24.1 per cent of adults in Canada were obese between 2007 and 2009). Perhaps what’s even more worrying is that this number is on the increase. It would be fair to say that as this number increases, so too will the number of new cases of cancer because obesity is associated with increased risks of several cancers.

The news is not all bad. If smoking rates can drop from 50 per cent in 1965 to 17 per cent in 2010 – there is no reason that we can’t stall and eventually decrease the rising rates of obesity.

Government sponsored cessation programs, patient education and awareness campaigns, in addition to Quit Smoking Help Lines and special programs have changed the way most of us think about smoking. These programs have been successful – though there is still work to be done.

It’s time to start regarding other risk factors (like obesity) for preventable cancers the same way we do smoking. Efforts are being made to educate the public on healthy diet choices and make food packaging easier to understand but it’s been a slow process.  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – just focus and hone in on helping people make healthier decisions.

Health care professionals have a very important role to play in the prevention of cancer – nearly as important as they role they play in treating it. Nearly every person I know who has successfully quit smoking has sought the help of a health care professional. Or quit as a result of a conversation with a health care professional. You have that affect. You have a person’s ear when they are sick, afraid and willing to do anything to get better.

Many hospitals have a growing number of disease prevention programs already in place – but there is still a great deal of work to be done. One of the best places to get people to listen may be in the hospital. Either because they are sick and want to get better or because they realize how sick they can get and want to prevent it. This is where prevention programs need to start – with hospitals as the foundation.

Despite overwhelming evidence that many cancers can be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices (not smoking, exercising, healthy diet), an increasing number of Canadians are being diagnosed with cancer every year. Somewhere along the line, the audience is disengaging and health care professionals could be the ones to reopen the lines of communication surrounding the prevention of cancer.


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