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Holding the cards to reducing cancer risk

Thursday 21 February, 2019

Professor David Whiteman


Cancer Council is working in partnership with world leading researchers like Professor David Whiteman to reduce the impact of cancer on our community by identifying how we can prevent as many cancer cases as possible in Australia.

The best way to reduce the impact of cancer on our community is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. While not all cancers are preventable, the impact of many can be significantly reduced by changing behaviour and lifestyle.

Understanding how to prevent cancer is a global research focus and Cancer Council is working in partnership with world leading researchers like Professor David Whiteman to identify how we can prevent as many cancer cases as we can in Australia.

“Cancer Council is a truly independent charity that supports research into cancer as well as support for people affected by cancer and advocacy. They are an iconic cancer control organisation of which there really are only a handful around the world.”

Heading up the Cancer Control Group at QIMR Berghofer in Brisbane, Professor Whiteman is a public health expert who specialises in the investigation of how we can improve the health of whole populations.

For this Cancer Council funded study, Professor Whiteman and his research team set out to address a very important question – of all the cancers diagnosed in Australia, how many could be prevented by changing how we are exposed to known cancer risk factors? Or put very simply, how can we change our lives to reduce our cancer risk?

“Working as a Doctor, I saw that so much of the disease burden I was treating in hospitals was preventable. I thought there had to be something we could do to fix this.”

Using data from all over Australia, they determined how many cancer deaths per year were caused by eight “modifiable” risk factors. These included tobacco smoke (smoking and passive smoking); diet (e.g. low intake of fruit and vegetables, high intake of red and processed meat); alcohol consumption; being overweight or obese; physical inactivity; ultraviolet (UV) exposure; certain infections (e.g. Hepatitis C and HPV); and hormonal factors (e.g. use of HRT).

The results were striking. Around 1 in 3 cases of cancer, and more than 16,000 cancer deaths, were theoretically preventable every year.

By far the biggest preventable cause of cancer deaths in Australia is tobacco smoke. Cancer caused by smoking and passive smoking killed 9,921 people in 2013 and accounted for 23% of all cancer deaths. The other major factors were poor diet, being overweight or obese, and infections, which each caused about five per cent of all cancer deaths in 2013. In line with these findings, the cancers responsible for the largest numbers of potentially preventable deaths were lung, bowel, melanoma, liver, and stomach cancers.

So now that we have this powerful evidence, how do we use it to generate change? Even small improvements would substantially reduce the number of people who die prematurely from cancer each year. This research is now being used extensively by Cancer Council, and other organisations around the world, to develop programs that encourage and empower people to reduce their cancer risk through lifestyle changes.


As a not-for-profit, we rely on the generosity of the community to continue this life-saving work. Donate, fundraise or volunteer your time to help us build a cancer free future.

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