John Loof: Knowledge key to understanding cancer

Improving public health literacy will help break down myths about the disease, writes John Loof.

There are strong links between obesity and cancer. Photo / Getty Images
There are strong links between obesity and cancer. Photo / Getty Images

There are numerous annual days recognising causes or pursuits. We have Kite Flying Day and even Pancake Day. But today, February 4, is World Cancer Day and the Cancer Society would argue there are few days as important, to reflect on an issue that affects so many.

World Cancer Day's theme this year is around dispelling myths and shedding light on complex issues.

The latest cancer statistics reveal that every day around 50 people are diagnosed with cancer in New Zealand and 22 people lose their lives. Most of us know about the enormous impact of this disease because it will have already touched our lives in some way.

Overall cancer incidence continues to rise largely as a function of our growing and ageing population and the strain this will place on our already overburdened health system should be a catalyst for more investment in cancer prevention strategies such as the Government's goal of a Smokefree NZ by 2025 or programmes aimed at reducing health inequalities across our community.

There are strong links between obesity and cancer. The previous Government sought to ensure schools provided healthy food in their tuck shops, a move that had few critics and no inherent costs.

This has been reversed by the current government and we have seen the ubiquitous coke, pie & chippies lunch remain and a continued rise in obesity rates among our young people, the effects of which will be seen in hospital wards within a few decades.

Not to leave out the taboo subject of alcohol consumption, which elevates many types of cancer risk. Much of the public discussion around alcohol law reform is focused on problems related to violence and disorder, however, more attention needs to be paid to the negative health effects of alcohol.

The most fatal cancer today is of the lung which accounts for the most deaths from cancer (18.8 per cent). Breast and bowel cancer (colorectal) are the next most common.

More than 80 per cent of lung cancers are attributed to smoking and one in every two smokers will die of a smoking-related disease.

What's worse is that businesses are actually benefiting from this and are fighting hard against measures to curb their industry. Revenue for British American Tobacco Ltd (BAT) in New Zealand exceeded $1 billion last year with profits topping $120 million, 4 per cent up on the previous year. In a difficult economic climate BAT remains one of New Zealand's most profitable companies.

However, with the government's goal of a Smokefree New Zealand by 2025 we are expecting to see a range of measures introduced, from plain packaging to further tax increases, more Smokefree places and reducing the supply of cigarettes in our local communities.

As a community we will need to be focused on making sure these actions eventuate, otherwise we will simply not achieve this important goal.

There is also much to be talked about in terms of population screening for cancer. It would be wonderful if a universal test could tell if a cancer was present, how aggressive it might be or what would be the most effective treatment.

Frequently there are calls for new or extended cancer screening programmes with individual cases cited as evidence of those who could have been saved "if only the cancer was found earlier".

It is very difficult for the public to understand the nuances of these arguments when medical experts are sometimes divided on the issues. More must be done to raise health literacy across our population.

World Cancer Day is an opportunity to recognise the advances in research into the causes and treatments of cancer that are being made on our own doorstep.

The Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre is one of the world's most productive academic cancer drug development groups, having to date brought 12 new drugs to clinical trials in New Zealand and around the world.

A recent breakthrough includes the start of Clinical Trials at Auckland City Hospital that if successful would change the lives of hundreds of cancer patients.

Forever the optimist, I am feeling confident as I see new cancer treatments being introduced for local patients, an increasing cancer survival rate and a growing commitment from government, Auckland Council and Public Health Organisations to work together to create healthier futures.

We do have a long way to go, but by breaking down the myths, and working together as a community we can provide cancer support for all of those in need and achieve a future with less cancer.

John Loof is the chief executive of the Cancer Society.

- NZ Herald

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