BLOG: Britain Against Cancer Conference | Breast Cancer UK

BLOG: Britain Against Cancer Conference

Published 21 Dec 2015

Breast Cancer UK went to the Britain Against Cancer Conference on the 8 December.  An annual event put on by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer, hosted by Macmillan and attended by a wide variety of NHS staff, cancer charities, cancer patients, patient group representatives, and of course some politicians. 

It follows a similar format each year with numerous speakers outlining what needs to be done to improve cancer services, patient support, diagnostics and ultimately help to beat what we all agree is a horrific illness. This year’s event was no different, but the upbeat (bordering on self congratulatory) motivational clichés was, for me, a little tiresome, as yet again the topic of prevention was heavily side-lined.   

Harpal Kumar, chair of the cancer task force and CEO of Cancer Research UK opened his slot by reeling off the reality of the situation – quoting that by 2020 half of us will get cancer at some point in our lives, over 400,000 will be diagnosed each year, and 3 million of us will be living with cancer.  (Macmillan reckon this figure will be closer to 4 million by 2030) – shocking statistics by anyone’s imagination.  

So, you would have thought that the next thing we should discuss would be to try and prevent this from happening - right?  Wrong.  Despite many of the key note speakers acknowledging that prevention was important, there was little substantive debate or time given to the issue of actually preventing cancer before it starts.

In the main conference hall, what little discussion there was on prevention remained limited to smoking cessation, improving active lifestyles and reducing alcohol consumption.   Whilst we agree that these are important, they only really tell half the story.   Indeed for breast cancer, there are a number of factors which can increase our risk of breast cancer, but only a very small proportion are attributable to either alcohol consumption and inactivity.  

One of the ‘breakout sessions’ during the day did delve slightly more deeply into the issue of prevention and for an hour, those delegates that chose to, were given a little more insight into the potential benefits of the HPV vaccine for boys, the pros and cons of e-cigarettes (one for another blog I think) and what the recent IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) announcement on red meat consumption actually meant.   But as far as prevention goes, we think this is only the tip of the iceberg.  

We decided to ask people at the conference whether they thought the new cancer strategy had set out sufficiently ambitious targets to help prevent cancer and also what they thought we should be doing as a society to try and prevent cancer.    For many these were difficult questions – and possibly not ones they had really thought about before.

However, we ended up with a whole range of possible measures and ideas that people felt were important in helping to reduce and prevent the number of cancer cases.  These included doing more about air pollution, finding out more about our environment, helping people to understand how stress might impact cancer risk, working with vulnerable communities to help improve their environment and lifestyle, increasing research and investment into prevention and tackling major chemical polluters. We also spoke to delegates about the lack of research funding that went into prevention and finding out what causes cancers – many were surprised that these figures were so small.

Why aren’t we more ambitious when it comes to prevention? The sad fact is that most people only start thinking about cancer when they, or someone they know, get it – and by then many feel it’s too late to start thinking about prevention. But it’s so important for future generations that we do. If we want to reduce cancer incidence rates, reduce the burden on the NHS and actually stop cancer before it starts, we have to stop paying lip service to prevention and actually make it a priority.

The issue of prevention deserves more than a sentence in a key note speech, more than a paragraph in a strategy on cancer services and certainly more than the currently tiny proportion of research funding its gets right now.     

To find out what Breast Cancer UK is calling for take a look at our postcards – why not send a few to your local politician.

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