Patients may not know that carrying excess weight is the third leading cause of avoidable cancer in Canada. (iStock)

Excess weight a growing cause of preventable cancer

Tobacco is by far the leading cause of preventable cancer in Canada, according to a study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. Next is inactivity followed by excess weight. But overweight and obesity are projected to become the second leading cause of preventable cancer in Canada in about 20 years.

Tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable cancer in Canada. (iStock)

70,000 cancers could have been prevented

“What we found is that currently about 70,000 cases of cancer diagnosed in Canada are due to things that we could have prevented through healthy living and through policies that affect the health of Canadians,” says Leah Smith, senior manager of surveillance at the Canadian Cancer Society and a co-investigator on the study. “When we look to the future we expect this number to increase by about 60 per cent and that’s a very striking number.”

Smith cautions that may seem like Canada is doing worse at preventing cancer but that is not true. Cancer rates are decreasing, but the population is growing and a large proportion is getting to the age of 70 or 80 when the risk for cancer is higher. She says that reinforces the importance of cancer prevention.

Tobacco reduction policy applauded

Given that tobacco is the leading cause of preventable cancer, Smith applauds Canadian government efforts to reduce smoking. in particular by recently passing the toughest rules in the world for plain packaging.

Protection from the sun is a recommended way to prevent cancer. (iStock)

Excess weight a complex chronic condition

Smith acknowledges that tackling the problem of excess weight is very challenging given that it is a complex chronic condition involving social, economic, political, environmental and physiological factors. Among possible strategies she suggests that taking steps to counter child obesity, enacting policies that have been proven to work to reduce excess weight, improving access to obesity treatment and addressing weight bias and obesity stigma in the workplace,  the education system and in the health care system. She adds there must be more research into causes and effective treatments.

The goal of the paper is to help policy makers and individuals understand the causes of cancer which can be prevented.

Advice for individuals

For individuals looking to prevent cancer, the advice from the Canadian Cancer Society is to live smoke-free, have a healthy body weight, eat well (more fruit, vegetables, less red and processed meat), practice sun safety, get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) and limit alcohol intake to one drink per day for women and two for men.

Leah Smith talks about preventing cancer.

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