Talk Cancer: How to have conversations that could save lives

Cancer
Two people talking on a sofa.

“How can I reduce my risk of cancer?”

Over 40,000 people in the UK Google that or something similar each year. But despite thousands of us turning to the web for answers, it’s something many don’t feel comfortable talking about.
But we want to change that.

Around 1 in 2 people in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. However, around 4 in 10 of those cancers are preventable, largely through making healthy changes.

That means there’s a large proportion of cancer cases each year, more than 135,000 in the UK in fact, where we do have some control over the cause and there’s a potentially life-saving action people can take.

And for the proportion of cancers that aren’t preventable, there are still actions we can take that can make all the difference. Spotting cancer at an early stage can save lives, as the chances of successful treatment are much higher.

Conversations about cancer prevention and early diagnosis aren’t easy, but we’re here to help.

Our Talk Cancer training programme equips people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to have supportive conversations with people about what causes cancer and what healthy changes they could make to reduce their risk, as well as the importance of spotting cancer early.

It looks at strategies you can use to break down barriers that people might have for taking positive action for their health as well as dispelling some of the fear, fatalism and myths that surround cancer.

How can you help people reduce their risk of cancer?

Causes of cancer can be placed into roughly 2 camps: things we can control and things we can’t. The latter includes things like getting older and our DNA.

But there are plenty of things we have some control over, including:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Being active
  • Enjoying the sun safely
  • Cutting back on alcohol

Approaching conversations about making these changes can be difficult. People may have barriers that prevent them from taking action. However, there are some key skills and methods that can help you feel more equipped and confident to talk to people and support them to reduce their cancer risk with healthy changes, including:

  • Knowing key facts around cancer prevention
  • Listening well
  • Empathising
  • Identifying healthy and sustainable ways to make changes
  • Being non-judgemental
  • Signposting to relevant information and support services

Our Talk Cancer workshops help people working in the community to build these skills. In a recent questionnaire, 100% of trainees report feeling confident to discuss things that can reduce peoples’ risk of cancer after training, compared to 68% before.

I felt more empowered, I felt I could share information in a way that didn’t frighten people but gave them knowledge about how they could reduce their risk of cancer.

– Julie, Talk Cancer trainee and health improvement practitioner

Prevention is not a promise. We can’t say for sure that someone not smoking or keeping a healthy weight or avoiding alcohol won’t get cancer, but it will help stack the odds in their favour.

Why is encouraging action for an early diagnosis of cancer so important?

Cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully and a person’s chances of survival are much better.

For example, more than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for 5 years or more if diagnosed at the earliest stage, compared to only around 1 in 10 if diagnosed at the latest stage. Similarly, almost all (98%) of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive their disease for 5 years or more compared to around 1 in 4 (26%) if diagnosed at the latest stage of the disease.

So how can our conversations help people get an earlier diagnosis?

Firstly, we need to encourage people to listen to their body and to speak to their doctor if they spot anything unusual for them. Helping people understand the importance of taking charge of their health and not putting off seeking help if they’re experiencing any unusual changes in their body.

Our training looks at some common barriers people might have around speaking to their doctor and ways you can help people overcome these, which could lead to an early diagnosis of cancer where chances of successful treatment are much higher. It’s not always possible to get an early diagnosis, but by helping someone get medical advice sooner rather than later we could make all the difference.

Secondly, we raise awareness of the National cancer screening programmes and the important role they can play to in finding cancers at an early stage, or even preventing them. Being equipped with the right information about what these screening programmes are, who they’re for and the importance of taking part can give you the confidence to discuss this with people.

99% of Talk Cancer trainees report feeling confident to discuss the National Cancer Screening programmes with people after a workshop, compared to just 44% beforehand.

It was really worth going to find out real facts and it gave me loads of confidence to speak to people much more openly about cancer and cancer screening. It really changed my view about cancer and how much difference it can make if you find it early.

– Ingrid, Talk Cancer trainee

Starting the conversation

Talk Cancer is a cancer awareness training programme for people who work or volunteer to improve the health of others in their community. Groups can commission interactive workshops, plus we also have a funding scheme to offer free workshops to eligible groups or organisations that don’t have budget for training.

We also have training options for individuals, including our open-access live online workshops and free online course for self-directed learning. Find out more about the programme on our website.

Emma Fox is a senior health community engagement officer at Cancer Research UK

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