World Cancer Research Fund conference online

Dr Chris Wild at the WCRF conference
Dr Chris Wild at the WCRF conference

You may have read on this blog about World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) scientific conference on cancer prevention earlier this month.

Well now you can see it for yourself, as we have uploaded videos of some of the speakers to our website:

Dr Francesco Branca: The Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization (WHO) talks about the opportunities and challenges related to cancer and nutrition around the world.

Prof W Philip T James: The President of the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) gives a global perspective on obesity, physical activity and cancer.

Prof Ricardo Uauy: From the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK and the University of Santiago in Chile, Prof Uauy looks about how early we should be concerned with cancer prevention.

Prof Sir Michael Marmot: Sir Michael, from University College London, looks at the implications of global inequalities for research, practice and policy.

Dr Chris Wild: The Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) talks about two-way translational research for understanding cancer aetiology.

Prof Elio Riboli: The Director of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London talks about preventability and its potential public health impact.

As well as these videos, the WCRF International website has audio clips and slides from some of the other speakers.

Cancer deaths in low and middle-income countries

Francesco Branca
Francesco Branca

Earlier this month we blogged about the lecture Dr Francesco Branca from the World Health Organization gave at our international scientific conference.

Dr Branca set out the challenge we face with cancer around the world and he particularly focused on low and middle-income countries.

A video of Dr Branca’s lecture, Nutrition & Cancer Around the World – Opportunities and Challenges, is now available online.

It is a fascinating talk and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the global issue of chronic disease in general and cancer in particular.

As I mentioned in my previous post, many people tend to think of a cancer prevention as an issue that only affects high-income countries. But Dr Branca showed that it affects us all.

According to one of his slides, in 2005 there were 2.1 million cancer deaths in high-income countries, compared to 5.5 million in low and middle-income countries.

By 2030, the number of deaths in high-income countries is projected to increase slightly to 2.5 million.

But the number of deaths in low income countries is projected to rise to 8.9 million.

This shows the extent cancer prevention as a global issue.

Watercress and breast cancer

Newspapers: reporting cancer risk
Newspapers: reporting cancer risk

Earlier this month WCRF’s scientific conference included a session about media reporting of cancer risk and the importance of putting new research into context.

And the following day, there was an article in the media about a new study that has apparently found that watercress protects against breast cancer.

Watercress ‘can help prevent cancer’” said the Daily Telegraph.

Eating watercress every day could stop breast cancer tumours from growing”, reported the Daily Mail.

So should you rush out to the shops and stock up on watercress now that it’s been revealed to be a cancer prevention miracle food?

The short answer is “no”.

Looking at all the scientific evidence is this field, it is true that there is good evidence that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can play an important role for cancer prevention.

But the evidence does not suggest watercress is somehow especially beneficial.

The best advice is to eat plenty of a wide a range of fruits and vegetables, including fruits and vegetables of lots of different colours.

This is the best way of making sure you get a range of vitamins and minerals.

Unfortunately this latest story is another example of the media failing to add context to its coverage of a scientific study into cancer risk.

The problem is that this is a small study of just 12 women. Much more evidence would be needed before we could be confident in the findings.

In fact, this is what Professor Graham Packham, who led the research, told his local radio station – that this study is just a first step and in no way definitive.

So what has gone wrong with this coverage?

In these cases it is fashionable to blame the newspapers that publish the articles.

And I’d certainly agree that ultimately the newspapers have to take responsibility for not doing a better job of covering the story.

But at WCRF’s scientific conference, Professor Tim Key, a leading scientist in this area, made the point that at least part of the problem is the press releases on which these news articles are based.

I think he is right.

Let’s take the University of Southampton press release that led to the watercress and breast cancer media coverage.

To be fair, it does set the study into context to a certain extent by saying:

“The two studies, which have been published in the British Journal of Nutrition and Biochemical Pharmacology, provide new insight into the potential anti cancer effects of watercress, although more work still needs to be done to determine the direct impact watercress has on decreasing cancer risk.”

But this sentence was in the ninth paragraph. I would argue that proper context means making it much more prominent.

And it is not helped by the following paragraph, which quotes a member of the Watercress Alliance, which funded the study:

“We are very excited by the outcome of Professor Packham’s work which builds on the body of research which supports the idea that watercress may have an important role to play in limiting cancer development.”

So even if you do read the press release right to the end, you still get the impression that this study might actually be an important breakthrough, after all.

The Policy Report WCRF published last year made it clear that the media reporting of cancer risk is an important public health issue.

It called on the media to make sure its coverage of cancer risk is both accurate and in context.

I think it is part of the responsibility of the scientific community, which includes university press offices, to hold the media to account when it fails to meet these standards.

But if we are going to do that, we need to meet these standards ourselves.

I don’t think that happened in this case.

If people are interested in reducing their cancer risk, then WCRF’s 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention are based on a review of all the evidence in this area and not just on the latest study.

Third Sector awards

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the Third Sector magazine annual awards in London.

I was one of the judges for three communications categories.

The standard of entry was very high, and speaking personally it was extremely interesting to spend a morning back in July with my fellow judges discussing the merits of various campaigns or annual reports.

So it was great to be there last night to see the winners pick up their hard-earned awards.

And as well as being an enjoyable evening, it was also a good reminder of the high level of talent we are lucky to have across the charity sector.

How early should we start thinking about cancer prevention?

Professor Ricardo Uauy
Professor Ricardo Uauy

Last week I set up an interview between The Observer and Professor Ricardo Uauy.

It was along the lines of a lecture Prof Uauy gave at World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) international scientific conference earlier this month.

The headline the Observer used for the article was “Child’s cancer risks rise ‘before pregnancy“.

I would imagine this would have surprised many people.

Many of us think of making lifestyle choices to reduce cancer risk as something that is only relevant to us when we become adults.

But scientific research is increasingly showing this is not the case.

Scientists call this the “life course approach”.

This might sound complicated, but it basically means that it is what happens across the whole of our lives that determines our risk of cancer.

And it means that even before you become pregnant, eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight can help get your child off to a healthy start in life.

This continues from birth. For example, if a baby is breastfed then there is strong evidence that it is less likely to be overweight later in life.

This is important for cancer prevention because scientists now say that, after not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do for cancer prevention.

Breastfeeding is one of the many things that happen in childhood that can influence – directly or indirectly – our risk of developing cancer later in life.

So when it comes to cancer prevention, it is never too early to start thinking about it.

This is why WCRF has a children’s education programme that runs the Great Grub Club website for children aged four to seven, which also has sections for teachers and parents.

We hope that by encouraging children to get into healthy habits early in life, we can make a long-term positive difference to their health.

But while it is never too early to think about cancer prevention, it is also important to emphasise that it is never too late.

No matter how old you are, you can still make a positive difference to your cancer risk by making the kind of healthy lifestyle changes set out in WCRF’s 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.

Boris’ bikes

I was interested to read about PR Week magazine’s survey that found the public seems broadly supportive of the new London bicycle scheme.

I don’t use it personally, but a colleague does and she thinks it’s great.

But helping some of us get to work is not the only reason we at World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) are pleased to see its introduction.

This is because our cancer prevention Policy Report concluded that making it easier for people to be physically active can play an important role in cancer prevention.

So anything that helps achieve this is to be welcomed.

It is also good to see that two thirds of people who took part in the survey thought Boris’ bikes, as they’ve quickly become known, are a reasonable use of money.

This suggests there is public support for measures that help people become more physically active.

But there was another question in the survey that is less good news for the London scheme.

Of the people who took part in the survey, 77 per cent said cycling in London was either “definitely” or “a little” dangerous.

That is a real problem and is likely to undermine efforts to get Londoners – and people all over the country – cycling.

After all, why should people cycle if they feel like they are taking a risk with their safety?

As Professor Martin Wiseman, an advisor for WCRF, wrote for the BBC last year:

“It is no good people like me recommending that you trade in your car for a bike if the roads around where you live seem too dangerous to cycle safely.”

This is why a bigger change is needed. WCRF’s Policy Report makes the following Recommendation to governments:

“Require widespread dedicated walking and cycling facilities throughout built and external environments”

This means “Boris’ bikes” are a good step forward in making it easier for people in London to be physically active. But they are only ever going to be part of a wider solution.

Waist size and bowel cancer

Waist size: linked to cancer
Waist size: linked to cancer

One of the posters presented at the WCRF conference was about a review of the evidence on the links between body fat and cancer.

This updated the findings of WCRF’s Expert Report and confirmed that excess body fat increases risk of cancer.

It also strengthened the evidence that carrying weight around the waist in particularly harmful.

This story was covered by the Daily Mail, the Independent and the Daily Express, and Professor Martin Wiseman, WCRF’s Medical and Scientific Adviser, did an interview on Radio Five.

It’s really good to get this coverage for the message that excess body fat is a cancer risk factor.

At the moment, just 55 per cent of people in Britain are aware of the link between body fat and cancer.

So hopefully this news story will have made people more aware of how they can reduce their cancer risk.

Why not have a look at our website, which has a section on how to measure your waist?

Research for cancer survivors

There is a lot of interest in research for cancer survivors – how do we improve survival rates and reduce the risk of cancer recurrence for this growing number of people?

At the WCRF conference today we heard insightful summaries of what we currently know and where we need more research.

Professor Josette Chor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong gave a picture of cancer survivorship in Asia.

The overriding message was that lots more research is needed on topics such as: physical activity, the Westernisation of Asian diets, traditional medicines, genetic differences and important stages of life.

Dr Michelle Harvie from the University of Manchester gave a Western perspective, where there is a larger body of research.

As in Asia, the number of cancer survivors in the West is increasing.

For example, in the UK there are 2 million cancer survivors, and this number is growing by 3.2% a year. Breast cancer survivors make up 28% of this group of people.

So what do we know about factors that affect cancer recurrence and survival?

The best evidence so far relates to breast cancer.

Dr Harvie explained that, for breast cancer, a patient’s weight and how much exercise they do seem to be particularly important for cancer recurrence and survival.

WCRF cancer statistics show that obese women are at a higher risk of breast cancer, and studies also suggest treatment for breast cancer may be less successful for obese women. But more research on this is needed.

Another key question for researchers is whether lifestyle changes after diagnoses (for example, losing weight or becoming more active) can improve chances of successful treatment. For breast cancer, some research suggests this is the case.

Lots of new research is emerging in this area, so World Cancer Research Fund is conducting a review of the evidence on breast cancer survivors as part of our Continuous Update Project.

You can also download our booklet for cancer survivors, which offers helpful advice to those who have completed treatment.

Social inequalities and cancer

Michael Marmot
Michael Marmot

Like many chronic diseases, cancer often affects the poorest in society most.

This was one of the messages of Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s address to the conference this morning.

His presentation was a stark reminder of how much variation there is in life expectancies within different countries.

For example, life expectancy for Icelandic men is 80. In Sierra Leone, it is just 40.

Some of the most shocking figures show how life expectancy varies simply according to what part of a city you live in.

In an affluent area of Glasgow, male life expectency is 82 while in one of the poorest areas of the city, it is just 54. This is eight years less than in India.

Men from the most deprived areas of Glasgow are dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer, and alcohol-related illnesses.

Sir Michael also emphasised that there is a social gradient of health – it’s not just the gap between those at the top and the bottom that’s important. And this gradient is gradually getting steeper.

Looking at the global picture, as low- and middle-income countries become more industrialised and urbanised, the number of people in these countries who are affected by cancer is expected to rise significantly.

But there is no reason to accept that these figures are unavoidable.

We can change things dramatically in a relatively short time if we can get a handle on the causes of the causes of diseases like cancer.

For example, what causes people to smoke or become obese? And how can we change these factors?

Professor Marmot argued that all policies – not just health policies – should be screened for their impact on health and health equity so that we all have the chance to lead healthy lives.

Professor Marmot was chair of the panels for both our Expert Report and Policy Report.

Fruits and vegetables in Scotland

I was interested to hear Professor Annie Anderson tell the WCRF international conference in London today about fruit and vegetable consumption in Scotland.

It is increasing, she said, but at a worryingly slow rate.

She said that at the current rate of increase, it would take 37 years to reach the target.

This is a concern because the evidence shows that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables probably reduces risk of cancer.