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A code of practice on how to prevent cancer

Carla Bleiker / Brigitte OsterathOctober 14, 2014

Prevention is everything in the fight against cancer. Now health experts have published a list for European individuals: These12 life-style choices can prolong your life.

woman on sunbed
Image: Getty Images

Smoking can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. We have known that for a while now. So it's not exactly rocket science to say that staying away from cigarettes and second-hand smoke is healthy.

And as far as advice goes, it's top of the list.

Not just any list - but a new 12-step European Code Against Cancer launched by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on Tuesday.

Compiled in collaboration with the European Commission, the authors of the code say they want to share the latest information about how to prevent cancer, and they want to promote healthy lifestyles across Europe.

In an interview with DW, IARC director Dr. Christopher Wild said the number of cancer cases in the EU was rising.

"We are not going to be able to just treat our way out of this," Wild stated.

He said the European Code Against Cancer is an attempt to explain to people in the EU how to prevent cancer. "It is based on science but in a language which is clear and direct."

Many well-known facts

The twelve rules are indeed easy to understand.

Number one and two on the list are: "Do not smoke" and "Make your home smoke free."

The advice to maintain a "healthy body weight" through regular exercise, and to eat healthily with whole grains, vegetables and fruits, follows close behind.

Next on the list is alcohol: "If you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake."

Infografic: The most deadly types of cancer in Europe

Then we're told to avoid too much sun (and "do not use sunbeds"), and to protect ourselves against cancer-causing substances in the workplace.

But it's only further down, at number 10, that we come to less commonly-known advice.

Under the heading "for women," the code says that "breastfeeding reduces the mother's cancer risk."

At number 11, the code urges parents to "ensure your children take part in vaccination programs for hepatitis B," a virus that attacks the liver and can cause liver cancer.

The code also says girls should receive vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV), but it does not say the same for boys, even though they are also at risk.

"We've focused on girls because that's where the biggest impact can be had," said Wild. "And we should remember that in some of the newer EU countries, like Romania and Bulgaria, we've got cervical cancer rates which are similar inscale to those in sub-Saharan Africa."

Beating fear

Experts say a guide such as this can give the public a tool to deal with its fear of cancer.

In Britain, for example, a 2010 survey by the charity Cancer Research UK found cancer to be the number one fear among adults aged 16 and older. Twenty percent of the population feared cancer more than debt, knife crime, Alzheimer's Disease and unemployment.

In 2012, 1.75 million people died of cancer in Europe.

For men, the most lethal cancer was lung cancer, with roughly 254,000 deaths, followed by colon and prostate cancer.

For women, breast cancer was the most lethal with around 131,000 deaths. Colon and lung cancer followed.

All these cancers are preventable.

preventable cancer cases

Not smoking is the best way to decrease the risk of lung cancer. The German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg (DKFZ) says not smoking decreases the risk of lung cancer by 90 to 95 percent.

Other risk-factors may be considered statistically less important, but they include working with asbestos or inhaling certain kinds of dusts.

A groundswell of opinion

The code clearly places the responsibility for healthy living on the individual, but Wild said it's for health professionals and governments as well.

"There is a question about how will the code have any impact," the researcher said, "and we've tried to address that by making it a one-stop-shop, where people can come for reliable evidence based on science."

But if, as the code says, smoking and sunbeds are dangerous and can cause cancer, shouldn't we aim to close these businesses down?

"You're pushing from the science into what would be a government-level action and what we wanted to say with the code was, 'how far does the scientific evidence take us,' and then it is up to governments to take action to protect their populations," Wild said.

"I certainly would not be satisfied if the code is simply aimed at individuals," he continued. "We want it to lead to a groundswell of opinion about the need to tackle cancer, and in particular prevention because I think that's been neglected."