The best way to outwit cancer is to prevent it altogether. That’s why the American Cancer Society dedicates millions of dollars each year to fund prevention research, including over $7 million in 2012. 

Since the 1950s, Society-funded research has helped scientists understand the role of tobacco, diet and physical activity, obesity , hormone use and other exposures in cancer development.

As we continue our efforts to fight cancer, the Society also remains committed to finding new ways to prevent the disease. These efforts include:

Diet, Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention

Between one-quarter and one-third all cancer cases in the US could be prevented if people maintained a healthy weight, got recommended amounts of physical activity, and made the right changes to their diets, estimates suggest. The Society’s Cancer Prevention Study-II has provided important understanding of how these lifestyle factors impact cancer risk.

Analysis of the CPS-II Nutrition Cohort showed, for instance, that people who follow the Society’s nutrition and physical activity guidelines most closely have a lower risk of death from cancer and heart disease than people who followed the guidelines least closely. A separate analysis of CPS-II data showed that people who spend more than 6 hours a day sitting are more likely to die than people who spend fewer than 3 hours sitting.

Society-funded researchers also are looking for ways to harness the power of fruits and vegetables against cancer. For instance, Ritu Aneja, PhD, is searching for the specific components in sweet potato greens that may help prevent prostate cancer. Sweet potato greens are rich in polyphenols, a group of powerful antioxidants found in certain fruits and vegetables that help prevent cell damage.

The hope is that pinpointing the exact compounds that prevent normal prostate cells from turning into cancer cells, vegetable-based preventive agents could be developed for prostate cancer.

Colon Cancer Prevention/Early Detection

Colon cancer is one of the few types of cancer that can be prevented with screening. And even if colon cancer does develop, it can often be cured if found early and treated. Yet only 59%of Americans age 50 and older follow recommended screening guidelines. The Society is funding important research in colon cancer prevention and early detection through several grants.

A fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a newer type of at-home colon cancer screening test that looks for occult (hidden) blood in the stool that could be a sign of colon cancer. To increase colon cancer screening rates, Society grantee Michael Potter, MD, is testing the “FLU-FIT Program” – a program that offers the fecal immunochemical test to eligible patients at the time of their annual flu shots. If it works, researchers expect the program could increase access to colon cancer screening for millions of Americans.

Similarly, Society-funded researcher Annette Maxwell, DrPH, is testing a method for disseminating a proven colorectal cancer screening intervention in the Filipino American community, a group that is less likely to be screened and more likely to be diagnosed at a late stage compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

The Society is also conducting research that digs into the question of whether the century-old drug aspirin can help prevent colon cancer. Research suggests aspirin may reduce both the risk of developing colon cancer and the risk of dying from it. A 2012 analysis of the Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II) Nutrition Cohort found that daily aspirin use was associated with a 16 percent lower overall risk of dying from cancer. Colorectal cancer was among the cancers seeing the largest benefit, with a nearly 40 percent reduction in the risk of dying.

The Society does not currently recommend aspirin for colon cancer prevention because it can cause serious stomach bleeding, although aspirin is used daily by millions of Americans to prevent blood clots that cause heart attacks.

Cervical Cancer Prevention

A big success story in cancer prevention is the HPV vaccine. HPV, short for human papillomavirus, is a common virus spread through sex that can sometimes lead to cervical cancer . The Society recommends all girls ages 11 to 18 receive the HPV vaccine .

HPV vaccination before exposure to the virus is an important cancer prevention strategy for all women, especially African-Americans and Latinas – the two racial groups most likely to develop and die from cervical cancer. Society grantee Rebecca Perkins, MD, hopes to fix that disparity.

Inner-city, low-income African-American and Latina adolescents have low rates of HPV vaccination, often because their doctors fail to offer it. Perkins’ research will identify the reasons why doctors aren’t prescribing the HPV vaccine. She’ll then implement an educational program for healthcare providers to increase the number of underserved, minority girls receiving the HPV vaccine.

Cancer Prevention Study - 3

Research like this has made significant contributions to our understanding of how to prevent cancer, but we’re not resting on our laurels. The Society has recently launched a new study, Cancer Prevention Study – 3 , to gain a deeper understanding of what factors prevent cancer. Over the next 20 years or more, Society researchers hope to learn more about how lifestyle, environment, and genetic factors affect cancer risk.

Through the work of our internal researchers and funded grantees, we hope to make a lasting impact in cancer prevention.