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Guest Blog – Education is Vital to Preventing Obesity Related Cancers – Bella Renehan

Profile image of: Bella Renehan

Author: Bella Renehan

Earlier this year, Professor Andrew Renehan, Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Deputy Theme Lead, wrote a joint letter to The Lancet with his daughter Bella, a Games Development Researcher at BBC Education.

Their letter discussed how the UK school science curriculum doesn’t teach children of the link between obesity and cancer. Last month Bella continued the debate with an article for the World Cancer Research Fund.

Here Bella continues the debate on why education is a crucial means to preventing cancer, as well looking at some of the apprehensions behind educating on the risks of obesity.

If obesity is causing cancer but not enough people know about it, why aren’t we teaching children this?

When people think about cancer research, many think about scientists looking for a ‘cure’ to cancer. However, today, an increasing amount of research goes into cancer ‘prevention’. Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer, which is why we are constantly reminded of the risks associated with smoking, whether at school, in our legislation, and on cigarette packs, in the hope that less people will smoke and therefore less people will suffer from smoking-caused cancers.

After smoking, obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer. This is now an official fact. But only 25% of people are aware of this link.

Bella Renehan profile

If more people knew about the association between obesity and cancer, perhaps more obesity-related cancers could be prevented. In our research letter to the Lancet, my father and I, for the first time, opened up the discussion as to whether schools should teach GCSE level children that obesity causes cancer.

So far, alternative attempts to raise awareness of this link, such as last year’s Cancer Research UK (CRUK) campaign, have faced backlash, and currently, there is essentially a lack of education on the link within schools, and we suggested that this might be a good place to start.

Now you might be asking, if obesity is causing cancer but not enough people know about it, why aren’t we teaching children this?

I recently wrote a blog post for World Cancer Research Fund to further debate our initial letter in The Lancet. The responses on social media indicated some of the barriers to introducing this as a taught subject.

There have been echoes of the backlash the CRUK campaign faced: “fat-shaming” and “causing children to develop eating disorders.” One Twitter user argued, “like our kids don’t have enough to worry about…let’s throw body politics into the melee”.

It seems that people do not want their children to hear that obesity causes cancer, since it paints obesity in a negative light, enhancing society’s already high standards for body size, and therefore potentially would cause young people to go from overweight to underweight (an exceptionally uncommon direction of weight change).

What are the counter-arguments?

Firstly, underweight disorders such as anorexia, are caused by a wide range of factors, with little evidence to suggest that avoiding obesity because of its health problems is a major contributing factor.

Whilst the voice of the Body Positivity Movement, which opposes the education of the link between obesity and cancer, is growing, it is still battling celebrity culture and social media, which continues to pressure young people into believing that they must be skinny to live up to society’s standard of beauty. On the other hand, education on obesity does not encourage people to be underweight; rather it encourages people to maintain a healthy weight.

Secondly, obesity is itself an eating disorder. If parents want to protect their children from eating disorders, that should include obesity. It seems paradoxical to want to protect children by covering their ears when someone tries to tell them the ill-health risks associated with obesity, since that very education protects them from these problems.

A third of children in Britain are overweight and being obese as a child strongly predicts for obesity as an adult. However, the link between obesity and cancer is based almost exclusively in adult studies, and some 80% of adults who are obese were normal weight as children. Thus, the message of education is aimed at normal weight children to protect them from the risks of growing up to be overweight as adults

Just as educating young people on the health problems linked to eating disorders associated with being underweight must be done sensitively, so too should the education on health problems associated with obesity. I have raised this discussion both as recognition that awareness needs to be raised amongst young people but also that raising awareness needs to be done carefully because of the backlash it has already faced.

The discussion must move away from body politics, and towards what is really the important matter at hand here: cancer prevention. Healthcare professionals and scientists who work in the field of cancer have a duty of care to educate the population on how they can prevent cancer, and whether people like it or not, one of the most important ways we can do this is through education.

NHS boss Simon Stevens recently said that obesity is becoming the new smoking, with new figures suggesting that cancer cases caused by obesity will double in the next two decades. It has been predicted that by 2035, someone will be diagnosed every 13 minutes with cancer that has developed because of their weight.

These people are the children of today; if our children are our future, we owe them an education on how to live a healthy life in order to prevent them facing a fate that is quickly becoming worse than that of smoking.