Cancer over the past 30 years
World Cancer Research Fund has been looking at the links between cancer and diet for three decades
At World Cancer Research Fund, we've been investigating the links between diet, weight, nutrition and cancer since 1990. In that time, the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer, and the way we understand the disease, has changed dramatically.
For our 30th birthday celebrations in 2020, we looked back at our achievements and how cancer science has changed.
If you have any questions about what we do and why, please get in touch.
- Who is World Cancer Research Fund?
- How does WCRF create its Cancer Prevention Recommendations?
- How have UK diets changed in 30 years?
- Does WCRF work with young people and families?
- How does WCRF know that obesity is a cause of cancer?
- How can I get involved with WCRF?
- Does WCRF help people living with cancer?
- What role does the government have in helping people to be healthier?
- Why are cancer rates increasing but other diseases are on the decline?
- What changes have there been in exercise trends in 30 years?
- Aren't more people surviving cancer?
- What food and physical activity policies do we have in the UK that encourage people to be healthier?
- What has WCRF achieved in 30 years?
Who is World Cancer Research Fund?
We are a cancer charity dedicated to helping people prevent and survive cancer. To do this we fund vital research into diet, weight, physical activity and cancer, as around 40% of cancer cases could be prevented if everyone was healthier – this includes maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, eating a healthy diet and not smoking. We're also part of a group of cancer charities around the world, known as the WCRF Network. We share research and knowledge so that together we can prevent cancer sooner.
When we were founded 30 years ago, the link between diet and cancer wasn’t widely known. But today, thanks in part to our research and promotion, more people are aware that they can lower their risk of cancer. In fact, awareness levels have increased even in the last ten years. A WCRF survey revealed that:
- In 2010, only 33% of Brits knew that processed meat increased the risk of cancer; today that number has increased to 56%.
- In 2010, nearly half of Brits still didn’t know that overweight was linked to cancer, whereas today 69% of us do;
- Ten years ago only 40% of people knew that not being active increased the risk of cancer in comparison with 53% today.
That being said, there is still a long way to go.
In 1992 we only funded two research projects, but together the WCRF Network has now funded over 500 projects in more than 23 countries. As well as funding research, we use our global voice to influence health policy at the highest level and we are trusted advisers to governments, the United Nations and other organisations around the world.
Throughout the month of September, to celebrate our 30th birthday, we will be sharing highlights of our work over the last three decades; we’re calling it: 30 days has September.
How does WCRF create its Cancer Prevention Recommendations?
We have 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations – eight that anyone can follow, one specifically for cancer survivors, and one for women who have babies. These recommendations are based on the global, scientific evidence on diet, weight, physical activity and cancer that we have compiled and analysed for our Third Expert Report – Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective.
We call this project our Continuous Update Project, and it includes almost 10,000 research papers. This volume of evidence and our rigorous analysis means that the results are reliable – this is what we then turn into practical and easy-to-understand advice.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise more
- Eat more fruit, veg, beans and grains
- Avoid junk food
- Don’t eat processed meat and limit red meat to three portions a week
- Drink less alcohol
- Don’t drink sugary drinks
- Don’t rely on supplements
- If you can, breastfeed your baby
- After a cancer diagnosis, follow our recommendations, if you can
By following our Cancer Prevention Recommendations, choosing not to smoke (or giving up smoking) and being safe when in the sun, you will have the best chance of living a life free from cancer. A growing number of studies from independent researchers show that the more closely you follow our Recommendations, the lower your risk of developing cancer.
How have diets changed over the years?
A lot has changed in 30 years; not just what we know about cancer, but fashion, music, food and society as a whole. Over the years, our diets have adapted due to advances in technology that have created greater convenience such as freezers and microwaves. We are also spending a lower proportion of our wages on food; 24% in 1974 compared to 11% in 2016. Plus, we're also eating out more.
Improved awareness and a desire to be healthier may have played a role in the changes our diets have seen, as the quantity of white bread purchased by households has dropped by 56% from 1992 to 2018, fresh fruit has gone up 23% since 1992, and red meat purchasing has decreased by 32% – although pork sausages are up 18%.
However, it’s not all good news. Alcohol purchasing has increased by 38%, confectionary such as chocolate bars increased by 13%, and pizza (frozen, not-frozen and takeaway) has increased by 143%.
So it’s a complicated picture. We may be eating healthier in some respects, but have become unhealthier in others – and of course, obesity rates in England have increased from 53% of adults in 1993 to 63% in 2018. That's why our work focuses on dietary patterns (what you eat as a whole) instead of individual food or ingredients, and our Cancer Prevention Recommendations should be followed as a package – not a ‘pick n mix’.
Does WCRF work with young people and families?
As one of the UK’s leading cancer prevention charities, we know that helping young people get a healthy start in life is really important. It’s in these early years that we form habits that affect our health later in life.
That’s why for over 20 years we’ve worked to inform and educate children and their families about healthy lifestyles. Back in 1997, we launched the Great Grub Club magazine which taught children how to eat healthily and be physically active in a fun way.
Ten years later, with the rise of the internet, we launched our Great Grub Club website, a free website for 4–11-year olds that included active play ideas, healthy recipes and teaching resources for schools, such as lesson plans and worksheets. We’ve also taken the Great Grub Club to the community by holding workshops with families in some of the most deprived areas in London.
To ensure that our resources for families remain current, up-to-date and have a fresh feel for children, we’re launching Eat Move Learn – a brand-new hub of fun, learning resources on our website for children.
As well as giving our health messaging directly to families, we also champion policy change that promotes the health of young people at a structural level. That’s why we’re part of CO-CREATE, an innovative EU-funded project which aims to reduce childhood obesity by working with young people to create policy actions that make our environments healthier.
How does WCRF know that obesity is a cause of cancer?
World Cancer Research Fund wants to live in a world where no one develops a preventable cancer. That’s why the WCRF Network has funded over £110 million of research into cancer prevention and survival through lifestyle. This has led to a number of discoveries, including that overweight and obesity increase the risk of at least 12 different types of cancer:
- mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers
- oesophageal cancer
- stomach cancer
- pancreatic cancer
- gallbladder cancer
- liver cancer
- bowel cancer
- breast cancer
- ovarian cancer
- womb cancer
- prostate cancer
- kidney cancer
We know this from a combination of epidemiological evidence (research on patterns across populations) and mechanistic evidence (research on the cellular and molecular level of cells). This research has revealed a number of ways that obesity increases the risk of cancer, including through inflammation, insulin resistance, and over-production of sex hormones. Often, it’s a combination of all of these factors.
The evidence on obesity and cancer is constantly growing, which is why we started off with only three cancers strongly linked to obesity in 1997. In 2007 this went up to eight cancers and then in 2018 four more were added to make it 12.
How can I get involved with WCRF?
There are so many ways you can get involved and help us prevent cancer so that we can keep families together for longer.
Take part in one of our events or virtual challenges and raise money for WCRF. We have plenty to choose from: from treks and obstacles races; to marathons and cycle rides, we have something for you all.
Increase the money you raise by asking your workplace to support WCRF by matching funds raised or donating a sum towards your fundraising target. You could even get colleagues involved too.
Payroll Giving allows you to donate to WCRF from your gross salary (before tax) giving immediate tax relief on these donations.
Giving in Memory is a special way to pay tribute and remember a loved one. You can do this by setting up a fundraising page in their memory, making a donation or even holding an event in their honour.
Fundraise with your celebration
Giving in celebration is an inspiring and heart-warming way for friends and family to mark your special day by donating to a cause close to your heart.
Leave a gift in your will
Why not rewrite the future by leaving a gift in your will to help prevent cancer?
Or play our weekly lottery for your chance to win great cash prizes whilst donating to WCRF.
Does WCRF help people living with cancer?
Our work isn’t just about preventing cancer, but also helping people to live well during and after a cancer diagnosis. We call this our cancer survival work, and as well as funding research into the effect of diet, weight and physical activity on cancer survival, we have several projects under way to help people living with cancer right now to improve their quality of life.
One of these is our Cancer Survivors Champions programme where we train volunteers who have had cancer in our nutrition and exercise advice, to help manage cancer related side-effects. Volunteers then deliver sessions to cancer support groups with the assistance of a health professional, and share their personal experiences of living with cancer.
Tricia, one of our Cancer Survivor Champions, is also a trained theatre nurse and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. “Going through some difficult experiences, as well as the lack of advice for healthy eating after surgery and during recovery, is what has inspired me to become a WCRF Cancer Survivor Champion. Someone like me with my medical knowledge knows how procedures and post-operative ward care should be, but what about everyone else? So, I want to be able to offer that extra help to others.”
During the COVID-19 lockdown we also started hosting Zoom sessions with oncology dietitian, Adele Hug, to give people with cancer specialised dietary advice when they may not be able to get it. We also co-hosted live, virtual cooking classes with Life Kitchen that demonstrated how to easily cook meals that combat the taste changes cancer patients often experience.
As a result of the success of these projects, we have a new Cancer survivorship ambassador program underway to ensure we have the most suitable and devoted people guiding our work. As part of this we will be delivering ongoing monthly virtual sessions focussing on different aspects of cancer survivorship. These sessions will be led by oncology specialist, and open to cancer patients and health professionals.
What role does the government have in helping people to be healthier?
At WCRF, we know that just telling people to eat healthier food and be physically active isn't enough, as our daily environments constantly nudge us towards unhealthy choices.
This could be in the form of cheap junk food that is readily available and heavily advertised, unhealthy food placed at eye-level for children on shelves in shops, or towns and cities that are not designed to make active transport – such as walking and cycling – easy.
This is why WCRF has a team dedicated to influencing health policy at the highest level – from nutrition labels to sugar taxes, we crunch the details to provide governments and policy makers around the world with the information they need to promote healthy diets and physical activity and to reduce obesity.
To address the obesity crisis, we need a whole-of-society approach, which includes efforts from governments as well as civil society, industry and individuals and requires a broad range of policies that make the healthy option the easy option.
Why are cancer rates increasing but other diseases are on the decline?
There were an estimated 18 million cancer cases around the world in 2018, a figure that is expected to rise to 30 million by 2040. This increase is due to several factors including:
- population growth and ageing
- the longer we live, the more chance we have of developing cancer.
Additionally, the last few decades have seen our lifestyles change; meaning that we are less active and eat more processed foods high in fat, salt or sugar. And this has also contributed to the rise in cancer worldwide; not least because of their effect on weight gain.
This change to a more ‘Western type’ diet across the globe is known as the nutrition transition, and is one of the reasons cancer rates continue to grow, yet many infectious diseases, like smallpox, have been almost completely eradicated.
However, this does not mean we should give up. In fact, many advances in treatment and diagnosis mean that more people are surviving cancer than ever before.
But with this growing global burden, preventing cancer should be a public health priority, as around 40% of cancer cases could be prevented if everyone was healthier; that includes not smoking, having a healthy diet, being active, and maintaining a healthy weight.
What changes have there been in exercise trends in 30 years?
Physical activity is any movement that uses our muscles and requires more energy than sitting still. Being physically active helps us to maintain a healthy weight – by making it easier to balance out the calories we eat with the energy we use – and protects us against cancer.
However, new technologies have encouraged people to increase the time they spend being inactive (sedentary) such as sitting in cars, watching television, and using computers.
In 1995, the UK government advice on physical activity changed to try and get people more active. It went from recommending vigorous activity at least three times per week for 20 minutes or more on each occasion, to 30 minutes of moderate activity on a daily basis (at least 5 days a week) – which are still the current guidelines.
In 2018, the number of adults exercising in England has doubled since 1997 (68% of men and 64% of women, up from 32% of men and 21% of women). However, what is troubling is that less than 2 in 10 children in England (20% of boys and 14% of girls) are meeting these guidelines; a drastic decrease from 2002 where more than 6 in 10 children were active (70% of boys and 61% of girls).
Clearly, levels of physical activity vary drastically across age, gender and socioeconomic group – activity levels decrease as deprivation increases, from 72% active in the least deprived areas, to 57% in the most deprived areas in 2018. 1 in 5 children are overweight or obese when they start primary school, this increases to 1 in 3 children at the end of primary school.
Given the importance of being physically active to prevent cancer, it's vital that people of all ages and all backgrounds are encouraged and empowered to be as active as possible.
Aren't more people surviving cancer?
Cancer survivors are people who have recovered from the disease. Survival rates vary for different cancers but are highest for:
- endometrial cancers
- and breast cancers.
Thanks to research, many more people are now surviving cancer due to earlier diagnosis techniques and better treatment options. One-year survival for all cancers has increased from 62% in 2001 to 72.8% in 2016.
This doesn't make the case for prevention any less persuasive though. Even after cancer treatment, many people still experience life-altering side effects such as:
- increased risk of diabetes
- increase risk of cardiovascular disease
- and, of course, cancer recurrence.
That's why WCRF is also dedicated to cancer survival research; looking at ways to improve the quality of life of people living with and beyond cancer through diet, weight and physical activity.
What food and physical activity policies do we have in the UK that encourage people to be healthier?
Policies can be used to change food and physical environments in order to help people to make healthier choices. Below are some examples from the UK – you can find these and more from around the world in our NOURISHING and MOVING databases.
The Soft Drinks Industry Levy, implemented in 2018 aims to tackle childhood obesity by discouraging consumption of soft drinks and encouraging companies to lower levels of sugar content in soft drinks. The Levy was designed to raise revenues to be used to fund physical activity in schools.
The Front of Pack Labelling Scheme (2013) is another policy implemented in the UK with the aim of influencing consumer choices, indirectly motivating companies to put healthier products on the market, and thus creating a healthier food environments. The front-of-pack labels used on pre-packaged foods in the UK are colour-coded in green, amber and red. They signal whether products contain low, medium or high levels of energy, fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar.
Policy must evolve to keep track with changes in our environments that make the healthier choices more difficult. The UK government recently announced a national strategy on ‘Tackling Obesity’ that recognises that our environments play a huge part in shaping our choices. As part of this plan, a national consultation has opened to gather evidence on how the current Front of Pack Labelling Scheme is being used in the UK and how effective it is compared to other front-of-pack labels, such as in France and Chile.
This front-of-pack labelling consultation highlights the importance of learning about how different countries address obesity, as governments across the world innovate to keep up with changes in our environments that nudge us towards unhealthy choices.
What has WCRF achieved in 30 years?
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