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Between 30 - 50 percent of cancers preventable

Dr Una Kennedy GP Advisor to National Cancer Control Programme

Dr Una Kennedy GP Advisor to National Cancer Control Programme


Promoting cancer prevention and early disease detection are among the remit of Dr Una Kennedy, GP Advisor to the National Cancer Control Programme.  With World Cancer Day this week on Friday, February 4th, Dr Kennedy is reminding everyone on the importance of “taking action to reduce cancer risk and of finding cancer early.

“It’s a huge boost to think of the benefit to patients if their cancer is detected early or action has been taken to reduce their risk.  Cancer is the single biggest cause of death in this country, accounting for almost one in three deaths. The number of cancer cases diagnosed annually in Ireland is projected to rise, potentially doubling between 2015 and 2045.  This is largely due to demographic factors, such as our growing and aging population but is also influenced by the prevalence of modifiable risk factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity and physical inactivity.

“Each individual’s risk of getting cancer is influenced by a wide range of factors, including things that we can’t change (our age and genetics) and things that we can change (if we smoke, what we eat, whether we drink alcohol, exercise, protect our skin from the sun).   Unfortunately, because of the impact of factors that we cannot change some people will get cancer. However, we can all take steps to reduce our risk of cancer.”

According to the World Health Organisation 30-50% of all cancers are preventable through changes to lifestyle and environmental factors.

According to Dr Kennedy, “tobacco smoking remains the single biggest contributor to preventable disease and death in Ireland. Tobacco smoking increases the risk of 15 different types of cancer. Smoking cessation is the single most important measure that people who smoke can take to improve their health. Almost one in three smokers in Ireland are either trying to quit or actively planning to do so. Nicotine replacement therapy is available to medical card holders on the General Medical Scheme (GMS) and the HSE offers a range of support services to help people who want to quit. 

“Radon is a naturally occurring gas found in the environment. It can increase risk of lung cancer when it is present at high levels. The Environmental Protection Agency provides information on how to check your home for radon gas levels. It also provides advice on how to reduce levels in your home if you need to.”

Dr Kennedy continued: “Breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk. The longer you breastfeed for, the greater the protection against developing breast cancer is. Eating fruit, vegetables and wholegrains provides the body with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that protect your body.

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Ireland, with over 13,000 cases annually. Most cases could be prevented by protecting our skin from ultraviolet radiation from the sun or artificial sources such as sunbeds.  Physical activity reduces the risk of bowel, breast and womb cancer.    Alcohol increases the risk of at least 7 types of cancer, including mouth, throat, breast, stomach and liver. When alcohol is broken down in your body, it can damage your body’s cells. You can reduce your risk of cancer by not drinking alcohol. The less your drink the lower the risk.

“Vaccinations can protect against some kinds of cancer. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a virus that can cause a range of cancers including cervical, penis, anal, mouth and throat cancer. The HPV vaccine protects against the HPV virus. The HPV vaccine is offered to all girls and boys in secondary school to reduce cancer risk. Hepatitis B vaccine protects against liver cancer.”

Early detection

Dr Kennedy further notes that “where cancer cannot be prevented, early detection is crucial. For many cancers, stage at diagnosis is the most important predictor of survival. Diagnosing and treating cancer at an early stage, before it has grown bigger or spread to other parts of the body, means that you are more likely to survive cancer.  Cancer can cause changes to how your body normally looks, works or feels. It's important to be aware of possible signs or symptoms of cancer, these include: a new lump or bump, a lump or bump changing in appearance or size, unexplained bleeding from any part of the body, unexplained bruising, unexplained or persistent pain, a change to your usual bowel or bladder habits, a new or changing cough, changes on your skin, difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving your tongue, unexplained weight loss or weight loss without trying, unexplained tiredness and unexplained night sweats

Dr Kennedy concludes:

“If you notice anything that is unusual for you or someone you know, it's important to contact your GP for advice without delay. Despite the anticipated increase in cancer cases over the coming decades, there are many actions we can take to help protect our health and our patient’s health.”  

For World Cancer Day 2022 the Irish Cancer Prevention Network is hosting a free public webinar on Friday 4th February at 1pm covering practical steps to reduce cancer risk, including the importance of acting on early signs or symptoms.