Either cancer doesn’t scare people as much as one might expect, or fear is not an effective method for changing behavior, because people are still doing things known to cause cancer. As a predictable result, the rate of preventable cancers is rising. Experts project that over the next 20 years, the number of cases worldwide will shoot up by 70% because people won’t stop smoking, overeating, or consuming animal products and processed foods, and won’t exercise more.
The bad news appears in the World Cancer Report, a World Health Organization (WHO) book that represents the work of some 150 scientists internationally.
The WHO expects that in a couple decades, doctors will be diagnosing 25 million new cancer cases every year. It predicts that the highest concentration of cases will be in the developing world, partly because people there are adopting the bad habits of more affluent countries, and partly because they are living longer, increasing their chances of developing cancer and dying from it.
Lung cancer is the most common and the deadliest type. 80-90 percent of cases are directly attributable to smoking — tobacco causes 30 percent of cancers — meaning they could have been prevented. Another risky habit is eating meat. People who eat red meat regularly are up to 50% more likely to develop colon cancer than others; they are also more likely to die of heart disease. The more red meat people eat, the slimmer their chances of dying peacefully of old age. Processed meat (like bacon and hot dogs) also “increases the risk of death due to colon cancer, other cancers, and heart disease.”
It may be that people are not improving their habits because they don’t realize the risk they are running. A World Cancer Research Fund study that surveyed people in the United Kingdom found that 49% did “not know that diet increases the risk of developing cancer,” the BBC reports. The Fund also found that people greatly overestimate the role that genes play in causing cancer. The group says that at most, ten percent of cancer cases can be traced back to inherited genes.
It may also be that attaining prosperity can be more motivating than avoiding disease is. The growing number of cancer cases is concentrated to the developing world. CNN reported that “more than 60% of the world’s cases and about 70% of the world’s cancer deaths occurred in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.” Large segments of those continents’ populations are only recently able to afford some of the bad habits common in wealthier countries, like eating meat regularly. Sadly, once they can afford to live like Americans and Western Europeans, many do, to the detriment of their health.
Adopting Western ideals doesn’t just sicken and kill humans; it also devastates the planet’s environment. The meat industry is among the biggest polluters and culprits in deforestation, among other ills.
As people around the globe grow more affluent, they would do better to look east for models of happiness or success. Traditions like Buddhism value inner peace over material wealth and consumption, roly-poly Buddha statutes notwithstanding. Ironically, eschewing the West’s burger-snarfing example could make other countries even wealthier, because the cost of treating cancer “is spiraling out of control,” says Chris Wild, director of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. “Prevention is absolutely critical and it’s been somewhat neglected.”
People the world over need to learn about and act on the science demonstrating that they can prevent cancer by changing their habits.
Photo credit: Attila Barabas