Making the healthy choice the easy one

We work with governments, schools, employers and health professionals to create change that supports people to reduce their cancer risk.

Cancer is a global disease – and a global burden. No country in the world has eradicated cancer, and every person in the world is at risk of getting cancer.

The level of risk varies massively – between people, countries, and between different types of cancer.

Yet around 40% of cancer diagnoses are preventable. This means that they were not genetically or biologically predetermined to happen. That’s an amazing statistic! Imagine if we could prevent up to half of cancer cases – how much sadness and ill health that would also prevent. 

It’s not easy

The technical term for preventable is “modifiable” – meaning the cause of the cancer could have been modified or changed. Sometimes you’ll hear these referred to as “lifestyle” cancers. You might also hear people talk about preventing cancer through “behaviour change” or “lifestyle choice”.

“Lifestyle” is a controversial term because it’s simplistic – and perhaps unfair – to suggest individual behaviour is the main factor affecting whether or not people get cancer.

Yet there are things we can do to reduce our risk of cancer: eat a good diet with lots of fibre, fruit and vegetables, don’t eat too much fat or sugar, stay a healthy weight, avoid alcohol, processed meat and supplements, breastfeed if you can, don’t smoke, and stay out of the sun.

So why don’t we all do it? Well, experts are increasingly realising that our behaviour depends on the society and environment we live in. 

What about tomatoes?

Take tomatoes. Our research shows that eating cooked tomatoes lowers a man’s risk of prostate cancer, and we also know that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables lowers everyone’s risk of cancer because of the nutrients and fibre they contain.

But what if tomatoes are really expensive? Or not commonly used in your culture or community? Or you live in a disadvantaged area where there’s little fresh fruit and veg available? Perhaps the only businesses able to afford the rents on the high street are fast food shops. Perhaps tomatoes don’t grow in your country and there are taxes on importing them. This would put people off buying tomatoes, and mean no tomatoes on offer in schools and hospitals. And what if companies put false claims on adverts for unhealthy food – and nobody advertised the health benefits of tomatoes?

Are some people just lazy?

Or take physical activity. Sometimes our culture – from newspaper headlines to GP surgeries – can seem to blame people for being overweight. There’s a suggestion that people should just get up off the sofa and go for a walk. 

But what if there aren’t nice areas to go for a walk? What if the local environment lacks green spaces or is heavily polluted? What if people are badly paid and work long hours in a sitting down job – sometimes without the benefits of holiday or sick pay? What if the local swimming pool is expensive and the public park is used by fee-paying groups at the weekend? What if hospitals and schools are only accessible by driving? What if school budgets are cut, meaning they can’t afford sports equipment or to repair play areas?

What seems like “choice” is affected by many factors that we don’t have much control over.

Making healthy choices is also easier for some people than others. Change may be hard because of patterns of behaviour established over many years, exposure to mass marketing of cheaper or more convenient options, other health issues or a lack of support.

Healthy people, healthy societies

At World Cancer Research Fund, we believe our risk of developing cancer is affected by factors at an individual and a societal level. Our approach is:

  • Fund scientific research into what can cause and what can prevent cancer.
  • Share the evidence with everyone as Cancer Prevention Recommendations.
  • Show governments and policymakers how to make the healthy choice the easy choice.
  • Work with others around the world.

We have a dedicated Policy team who work with other organisations – such as the World Health Organization and the Obesity Health Alliance – to keep pressure on the people who make decisions. We share evidence about what can help prevent cancer and other diseases, and we share examples of countries that are helping people to be healthier. We also point out the economic benefits of a healthy population.

Our Policy team’s work covers a variety of issues – anything from a global action plan on the harmful use of alcohol, to front-of-pack food labelling. Our NOURISHING and MOVING databases are a collection of policies from around the world that governments have implemented to tackle obesity and encourage physical activity. 

Building momentum is our series of reports designed to help governments overcome some of the barriers to making good policies. So far, we have reports on sugary drinks taxes, food labels, advertising unhealthy food to children and establishing physical activity in primary healthcare.

If you’re interested in World Cancer Research Fund’s policy work and would like to hear more about what we do in this area, sign up to our monthly policy and public affairs newsletter or watch our One month in a minute video roundup on YouTube.