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Woman sits in infusion chair receiving cancer treatment

Cancer is a growing public health problem. It is the second-leading cause of death worldwide and is the leading or second-leading cause of death before age 70 in 112 countries. As the population ages and increases, the number of cancer cases will rise.

A new report published by the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicts that by 2050, the number of people with cancer could rise 77% to 35 million cases.

The report found that in 2022 — the most recent data available — about 20 million cases of cancer were diagnosed and 9.7 million people around the world died from the disease. It estimates about 1 in 5 individuals will develop cancer in their lifetime, and 1 in 9 men and 1 in 12 women will die from the disease.

Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. In males, that is followed by prostate, colorectal and stomach cancers for cases, and liver, colorectal and stomach cancers for deaths. In women, breast cancer ranks first for both incidence and mortality, followed by lung, colorectal and cervical cancers.

Prevention Is Key

More than half of cancer deaths worldwide are potentially preventable. For example, eliminating smoking could prevent about 1 in 4 deaths from cancer, or about 2.6 million cancer deaths.

You can lower your risk of getting cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices such as:

  • Avoiding tobacco. When you smoke, the toxins from cigarette smoke enter your blood stream through your lungs, according to Tobacco Free Florida. Your blood travels to every part of your body, increasing your risk for many types of cancers including lung, colon, esophagus, liver, pancreatic and stomach. Smoking also weakens the immune system, making it harder to kill cancer cells. At Moffitt Cancer Center, researchers are developing new strategies to help people quit smoking, such as apps that deliver smoking cessation programs.

  • Protecting your skin. While melanoma is rare, it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths. “Sun protection starts with proper clothing — long sleeves and broad-brimmed hats (sorry, a baseball cap is not enough) — along with sunglasses and sunblock on any exposed skin,” said Vernon Sondak, MD, chair of the Cutaneous Oncology Department at Moffitt. The sun’s rays are most direct and most intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Be sure to select sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more.                                                                              
  • Keeping a healthy weight. Research shows certain food properties and nutrients do play a role in cancer. Plant-based or Mediterranean diets are low in sodium and unhealthy fats and rich in anti-inflammatory foods, which can reduce inflammation and cell damage. Exercise is also important. Many studies show there is an association between being in good physical shape and reduced cancer risk. “Having higher cardiorespiratory fitness is related to the same benefits that result from engaging in more physical activity: better immune function, regulating metabolism and decreasing chronic inflammation. All of these benefits tend to help reduce cancer risk and improve trajectories following cancer diagnosis,” said Nathan Parker, PhD, a researcher in the Health Outcomes and Behavior Program
  • Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that even a single glass of alcohol per week can increase the risk of at least six types of cancer: oral, esophageal, colorectal, stomach, breast and liver. It also found that stopping alcohol consumption for five to nine years was shown to reduce oral cancer risk by 34%. “Alcohol is the third-leading modifiable factor that increases cancer risk after cigarette smoking and excess body weight. The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk for cancer,” said Sylvia Crowder, PhD, a nutrition researcher in Moffitt’s Health Outcomes and Behavior Program.
  • Getting tested for hepatitis C. Hepatitis C can cause a liver infection that if left untreated can become long term. Chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. The virus is spread through contact with blood from an infected person. “It is important that people get screened, as hepatitis C is the leading cause of hepatocellular carcinoma. Most people who are infected have no symptoms and don’t even know they are sick. And when symptoms do present, it is often a sign of advanced liver disease,” said Anna Giuliano, PhD, founder of the Center for Immunization and Infection Research in Cancer.

Vaccines and Screenings Save Lives

According to the ACS, only 15% of eligible girls worldwide have received the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination series. HPV infection causes about 5% of all cancers, and nearly all cervical cancers are caused by the virus. The vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 9 to 26 and protects against the most common types of the virus that cause cancer. Adults between 27 and 45 who have not previously been vaccinated are also eligible and are encouraged to speak to their physician about vaccination.

Anna Giuliano, PhD

Anna Giuliano, PhD

While there are screening tests for cervical cancer, the ACS found that only 36% of women globally were screened in 2022. Giuliano says there are many reasons women aren’t being screened: “It could be a lack of insurance or access to care, lack of understanding for the need to be screened and screening guideline confusion.”

Guidelines for screening are laid out by age group:

  • Ages 21-29: Have a Pap test every three years.
  • Ages 30-65: Have a Pap test every three years; HPV test every five years; or a Pap and HPV co-test every five years.
  • Age 65+: Talk with your health care provider to determine if screening is needed.
  • Women who have had a hysterectomy, including removal of the cervix, and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer do not need to be screened.

Screenings are crucial in reducing cancer incidence and mortality. Cancer is easier to treat, and outcomes are better when the disease is caught early. Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women. Women should begin getting annual mammograms at age 40. For men, lung cancer is the most diagnosed cancer worldwide. However, low-dose CT screening for both men and women for lung cancer is grossly underutilized.

If everyone who is eligible to undergo lung cancer screening actually had the screening done, 60,000 lives per year would be saved in the United States.

“If everyone who is eligible to undergo lung cancer screening actually had the screening done, 60,000 lives per year would be saved in the United States,” said Jhanelle Gray, MD, chair of the Thoracic Oncology Department.

Annual lung screening is recommended for current or former smokers age 50 or older who have smoked a pack a day for the past 20 years or two packs a day for the past 10 years.

In 2022, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that people of average risk start colorectal cancer screenings at age 45. This includes people with no prior diagnosis of colorectal cancer, no family history or genetic disorders that increase your risk of disease, no history of precancerous polyps and no diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease.

Tackling Disparities

According to the ACS report, cancer incidence is highest in high-income countries, largely because of higher life expectancy and higher prevalence of risk factors like smoking and obesity, as well as greater access to cancer screenings and diagnostic testing.

However, despite lower incidence rates in low-income nations, mortality rates are often disproportionately higher. For example, the breast cancer mortality rate is over 35 per 100,00 women in Fiji and Jamaica, which is three times more than the rate in the U.S.

Disparities come in all forms. Where we live, play, work and get our health care are all factors. Understanding aspects of communities that have one or more sociodemographic characteristics in common, ranging from geography, race and ethnicity to environment, is essential to identifying strategies to improve health. 

If someone is living in a location that has limited resources, that shows itself not only in access to health care but many factors that drive health including nutrition, green spaces, and safe and affordable housing.

Susan Vadaparampil, PhD

Susan Vadaparampil, PhD

“When we look at achieving health equity, we must consider the intersection of all of these factors to improve health outcomes in the long term,” said Susan Vadaparampil, PhD, associate center director of Community Outreach, Engagement and Equity at Moffitt. “No one sector or organization can do it alone. This is where building trust with community members and partnerships with the local organizations that are present in their communities are essential strategies.”

Moffitt continues to focus on innovative ways to reach communities who face these challenges.

“A universal strategy that has been successfully used around the world is to bring the community to the table to tell us what their most pressing needs are and to help co-develop solutions that fit our community,” Vadaparampil said.