How to prevent cancer: putting all the evidence together

One of the projects we fund aims to bring together all the scientific research on how diet, nutrition and physical activity affect cancer risk and survival.

Every year, thousands of studies on cancer are published. Imagine if every scientist, research group, health professional and policymaker had to read every study that comes out and piece together the cancer jigsaw themselves. That would be a colossal duplication of effort.

Thirty years ago, World Cancer Research Fund began work on an ambitious project to sort out the jigsaw. A large database was constructed to bring together all the research, from around the world, on diet, body weight, physical activity and cancer.

The database now contains nearly 10,000 publications and these are analysed by a team of researchers at Imperial College London, funded by World Cancer Research Fund. We call it the Global Cancer Update Programme (formerly known as the Continuous Update Project).

Patterns and molecules

A lot of the evidence stored in the database comes from looking at large groups of people and the patterns of who gets cancer and who doesn’t, then comparing their diets and lifestyles. Looking at populations and the risk of disease is called epidemiology.

The Global Cancer Update Programme also looks at mechanistic evidence. Mechanisms are the molecular and cellular processes within our body that cause or protect against cancer, and how they are linked to diet and exercise.

We funded a team at Bristol University to create a tool that identifies gaps in mechanistic evidence, which helps researchers when deciding what to investigate. Watch our video below to understand more.

How the Global Cancer Update Programme works

  1. Pull together all relevant research on diet, weight, physical activity and cancer.
  2. Analyse this evidence using up-to-date statistical techniques.
  3. Provide expert judgement on the analysis, including the likelihood that particular risk factors are related to cancer outcomes, via a panel of independent experts.
  4. Give expert guidance on how best to reduce everyone’s risk of cancer and improve survival after diagnosis in our Cancer Prevention Recommendations.
  5. Ensure the science is publicly available to scientists, researchers, policmakers, health professionals and the public.

Diet and Cancer reports

Every ten years (give or take), we review this massive database of evidence to provide an overview of which lifestyle factors can increase or decrease the risk of cancer.

Known as Diet and Cancer reports, we launched the third in the series in 2018. This report brought together all the current evidence on what prevents cancer, and also includes a chapter on breast cancer survival.

We took this as an opportunity to update our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, making them the most reliable blueprint for preventing cancer through diet, weight and physical activity. A growing number of studies from independent research groups show that the more closely you follow our Recommendations, the lower your risk of developing cancer.

Evolution and adaptation

As science evolves, it’s important that we adapt. The goal is to ensure that we will continue to generate the best possible answers to the most important questions.

One key area is expanding our work on surviving cancer. This includes updating the evidence on the role of diet, weight and physical activity after a diagnosis of breast cancer.

In addition, for the first time at World Cancer Research Fund, we’re investigating how diet, body weight, and physical activity can influence quality of life for women living with and beyond breast cancer.

Other areas of focus include:

  • digging deeper into how cancer develops
  • improving our understanding of how patterns of eating and behaviour affect cancer risk
  • considering how factors across the whole life span link to cancer
  • and critically reviewing the robust process by which we conduct our work.

It’s an exciting time at World Cancer Research Fund and we can’t wait to share the outcomes with our supporters. Watch this space!