Preventing Cancer

Cancer prevention has the potential, in the long run, to save even more lives than treatment. With improved prevention, fewer people would face a diagnosis of cancer and the physical, financial, social, and psychological harms of the disease and its treatment.

NCI’s support of cancer prevention research is particularly critical because the private sector is generally not incentivized to make prevention a priority due to the many economic, logistical, and scientific challenges that must be overcome. For example, most cancers are rare diseases that develop slowly over many years, or even decades. Therefore, clinical trials testing the effectiveness of new cancer prevention methods require very large numbers of patients and years to conduct.

Although new interventions for cancer prevention are greatly needed, full implementation of existing evidence-based approaches would greatly reduce the burden of cancer in the United States. Research suggests that more than half of all cancer deaths that occur in this country each year could be prevented if people quit smoking, drank only moderate amounts of alcohol, maintained a healthy body weight, exercised regularly, and received recommended cancer screenings and vaccinations.

Current NCI-supported cancer prevention efforts focus on:

  • Reducing exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment, such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet radiation, asbestos, arsenic, and radon gas.
  • Cancer screening tests, such as the Pap smear for cervical cancer and colonoscopy for colorectal cancer, which can detect precancerous growths that can be removed or destroyed before they progress to cancer.
  • Vaccinations against cancer-causing viruses, such as the hepatitis B virus and high-risk types of human papillomavirus, to prevent persistent infections that lead to the development of cancer. About 10% of all cancers are caused by viruses.

An emerging area of opportunity is the development of vaccines to prevent not only the cancers that are caused by viruses but also cancers that are not caused by viruses.