Cancer prevention is defined as active measures to decrease the incidence of cancer. This can be accomplished by avoiding carcinogens or altering their metabolism, pursuing a lifestyle or diet that modifies cancer-causing factors and/or medical intervention (chemoprevention, treatment of pre-malignant lesions).

Much of the promise for cancer prevention comes from observational epidemiologic studies that show associations between modifiable life style factors or environmental exposures and specific cancers. Evidence is now emerging from randomized controlled trials designed to test whether interventions suggested by the epidemiologic studies, as well as leads based on laboratory research, actually result in reduced cancer incidence and mortality.

Examples of modifiable cancer risk include alcohol consumption (associated with increased risk of oral, esophageal, breast, and other cancers), smoking (although 20% of women with lung cancer have never smoked, versus 10% of men[1]), physical inactivity (associated with increased risk of colon, breast, and possibly other cancers), and being overweight (associated with colon, breast, endometrial, and possibly other cancers). Based on epidemiologic evidence, it is now thought that avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, being physically active, and maintaining recommended body weight may all contribute to reductions in risk of certain cancers; however, compared with tobacco exposure, the magnitude of effect is modest or small and the strength of evidence is often weaker. Other lifestyle and environmental factors known to affect cancer risk (either beneficially or detrimentally) include certain sexually transmitted diseases, the use of exogenous hormones, exposure to ionizing radiation and ultraviolet radiation, certain occupational and chemical exposures, and infectious agents.

Diet and cancer

The consensus on diet and cancer is that obesity increases the risk of developing cancer. Particular dietary practices often explain differences in cancer incidence in different countries (e.g. gastric cancer is more common in Japan, while colon cancer is more common in the United States). Studies have shown that immigrants develop the risk of their new country, suggesting a link between diet and cancer rather than a genetic basis.

Despite frequent reports of particular substances (including foods) having a beneficial or detrimental effect on cancer risk, few of these have an established link to cancer. These reports are often based on studies in cultured cell media or animals. Public health recommendations cannot be made on the basis of these studies until they have been validated in an observational (or occasionally a prospective interventional) trial in humans.

The case of beta-carotene provides an example of the necessity of randomized clinical trials. Epidemiologists studying both diet and serum levels observed that high levels of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, were associated with a protective effect, reducing the risk of cancer. This effect was particularly strong in lung cancer. This hypothesis led to a series of large randomized trials conducted in both Finland and the United States (CARET study) during the 1980s and 1990s. This study provided about 80,000 smokers or former smokers with daily supplements of beta-carotene or placebos. Contrary to expectation, these tests found no benefit of beta-carotene supplementation in reducing lung cancer incidence and mortality. In fact, the risk of lung cancer was slightly, but not significantly, increased by beta-carotene, leading to an early termination of the study. [2]

However, Randomized Clinical Trials (RCTs) also have drawbacks in cancer prevention, particularly in micronutrient deficiencies, which are thought by some to be a major contributor to cancer. RCTs involve huge numbers of people, take many years to complete, and are therefore extremely expensive and complicated, and therefore few are done. In addition, these randomized clinical trials usually test only a single dose. An alternative, which is likely to be more useful, is to do shorter intervention trials focusing on other endpoints related to cancer, such as DNA damage. These trials can test a variety of doses on fewer people to determine what level of micronutrient intake (or, better, micronutrient concentration in blood) keeps DNA damage to a minimum.

Other chemoprevention agents

Daily use of tamoxifen, a selective estrogen receptor modulator, typically for 5 years, has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in high-risk women by about 50%. Cis-retinoic acid also has been shown to reduce risk of second primary tumors among patients with primary head and neck cancer. Finasteride, a 5-alpha reductase inhibitor, has been shown to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Other examples of drugs that show promise for chemoprevention include COX-2 inhibitors (which inhibit a cyclooxygenase enzyme involved in the synthesis of proinflammatory prostaglandins).

Genetic testing

Genetic testing for high-risk individuals, with enhanced surveillance, chemoprevention, or risk-reducing surgery for those who test positive, is already available for certain cancer-related genetic mutations.


1 - Lung Cancer in American Women
2 - National Cancer Institute Questions and Answers About Beta Carotene Chemoprevention Trials U.S. National Institutes of Health