Fighting Cancer Isn't All About Personal Lifestyle But the Environment We Live In

Media reaction to the World Health Organisation's World Cancer Report has focused too much on smoking, alcohol and obesity

The World Health Organisation published its World Cancer Report on Monday. It is a hefty document of 800 pages which warns of a "tidal wave" of cancer facing the world over the next 20 years. The media reaction to this news on the whole has been sadly, but perhaps predictably, sensationalist.

Ignored is the report's conclusion that only half of the 24m cases projected by 2035 may be preventable. Ignored is the conclusion that the main reasons for this increase are population growth and increased life expectancy. Instead, the focus has almost exclusively centred on other factors contributing to preventable cancers, and then very selectively.

The report identifies several major sources of preventable cancer; they include smoking, infections, alcohol, obesity, radiation and air pollution. Of those sources, infections, radiation and air pollution have been set aside and discussion has zeroed in on the narrow subset of what are being described as "lifestyle choices". Because to talk about air pollution or infections or radiation would require a discussion of wealth inequalities, of living conditions, of asymmetry of information, of destructive environmental choices. And all that is too difficult.

Even in discussing smoking, alcohol and obesity, the actual recommendations of the WHO are ignored. They talk of more money going into early detection, of regulating food and drink manufacturers more tightly, of a tax on sugared drinks, of clearer labelling on alcohol, of incentives on banning smoking in public places. But the responsibility of manufacturers not to make unhealthy products and market them aggressively and the responsibility of the state to regulate big business are being airbrushed out of the report. Such ideas are not fashionable. Red tape and corporate responsibility are enemies of enterprise and contrary to economic growth.

Instead, the focus is on the facile concept of personal responsibility and the blaming of the individual; a subset of a subset of a subset of what the report talks about. I lost my father to cancer. He didn't smoke or drink or eat processed food. But why should that matter? Why are we getting into the discussion of defending some sick people and not others? Why are we painting ourselves into the corner where one of the biggest global killers, somehow, becomes the fault of the affected?

In an environment where more and more of us are living in tiny hutches within urban environments, breathing in polluted air, working longer and longer hours of sedentary jobs, with poor access to quality information, exercise space or fresh produce, bombarded 24/7 by advertising telling us to eat and drink the wrong thing, it is a ludicrous position to say that multi-billion corporations and the state can wash their hands of all consequences by telling us "you should have been healthier, you know".

Naturally, personal choices and responsibility for one's own lifestyle matter greatly. There may be a warped logic in, essentially, scaring people into making better choices. But a naive and selective reading of such a complex and detailed report lets much bigger culprits off the hook and avoids important conversations. It encourages the belief that one can protect oneself from this "tidal wave" by putting out their fag and wearing a snorkel and, if they don't, drowning was their own fault.

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