Health policy planners urged to take steps to cut cancer cases

At least 29% of cancer incidence in Ireland is potentially preventable, according to the first analysis of modifiable risk factors for cancer by the National Cancer Registry Ireland, which urged that the findings should be used for health policy planning.

It found that smoking, overweight and obesity, and infections were the top three modifiable risk factors for cancer in Ireland, together accounting for about 21% of all cancers. It also estimated that between 2026 and 2035, a cumulative total of 66,343 cancer cases will be attributable to smoking, overweight and obesity, and alcohol intake if prevalence of these risk factors remains unchanged.

But it cautioned that the numbers could be much higher. “Due to limitations in data availability, certain modifiable risk factors, such as occupation related risks and everyday sun exposure, were not included in this report and therefore the preventable proportion of cancer incidence in Ireland is likely to be considerably higher,” said NCRI Director Professor Kerri Clough Gorr.
The report said the level of public awareness of modifiable risk factors for cancer must be addressed, citing the fact that recent Irish surveys found that only 32% of people are aware that obesity is a risk factor for cancer, 75% of adults don’t know what HPV is and 56% are not aware that HPV infections can cause cancer.

Greater public awareness would help to reduce the burden on both patients and health services. “These projections should be considered by policymakers and there needs to be an effort to ensure that the projected increases are not realised.

“It is essential that measures are undertaken and continued, especially at a population level, to ensure that possible increases in cancer cases in the future do not become a reality (and) it is recommended that the findings in this report are used for future health-related policy planning.”

It also recommended that the work carried out in the analysis should be repeated in future years to ensure regular monitoring and to assess the impact of policy change and intervention on public health outcomes.

The NCRI is also compiling a follow-up report estimating the economic burden of cancer in Ireland attributable to modifiable risk factors. “The economic burden of cancer for the health services, patients and their families, and society at large are significant. This burden will increase in the coming years as novel, more expensive treatments become available and the number of people living with and beyond cancer increases.”

The agency said the report’s findings should be used as the basis for future health policy planning in Ireland. “Several of the risk factors in this report are associated with not only cancer but a range of other diseases, including heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Therefore policies to reduce the prevalence of these modifiable risk factors should consider the wider impact on public health.”

It also stressed that there are likely to be differences between rural and urban areas, which should be considered in future investigations on risk factor prevalence. It pointed out that the analysis related to primary cancer incidence in Ireland, and there was no estimate for the contribution of these modifiable risk factors to the risk of cancer recurrence.