World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Margaret Chan speaks at the opening ceremony of the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) in Singapore on March 20, 2012. Chan on March 20 branded the tobacco industry a "ruthless and devious enemy" and called on governments and civil society groups to unite against cigarette firms.  AFP PHOTO / SIMIN WANG

WHO chief Margaret Chan: cancer is coming from "two vastly different worlds". Photo: AFP

It's a word we all fear, and every day more of us are forced to face it. And now the World Health Organisation has revealed that cancer has overtaken heart disease as the biggest killer in Australia and globally.

Despite having access to some of the best healthcare in the world, experts say, Australia still faces many thousands of deaths each year from the disease.

There's no doubt alcohol contributes to a chronic disease like cancer. 

While cancers linked to poverty are prevalent in some countries, in Australia it is affluence that is killing us.

The co-author of the WHO World Cancer Report, Bernard Stewart, said the main message was that cancer is a “largely preventable disease”.

The University of NSW professor, who is head of cancer control at the South Eastern Sydney Public Health Unit, said the increasing burden of cancer - with 14.1 million cases in 2012 - meant something had to be done to stop cancers before they occurred.

“We can't, as a world, treat our way out of the burden of cancer," he said. “We now know for certain that the vast majority of cancers are attributable to what have been called 'lifestyle choices', or decisions people make about their own situation.”

The way in which Australia and other countries were able to tackle the issue of personal responsibility versus regulation and legislation would be the key issue influencing cancer statistics in the future, he said.

Cancer Council Australia's Terry Slevin said the report indicated that, in 2012, between 2.4 million and 3.7 million deaths worldwide were preventable.

He pointed to a comment from the director-general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, who said cancers were coming from two “vastly different worlds”.

“Those associated with the world of poverty, including infection-related cancers, are still common, while those associated with the world of plenty are increasingly prevalent, owing to the adoption of industrialised lifestyles, with increasing use of tobacco, consumption of alcohol and highly processed foods, and lack of physical activity,” she wrote in the World Cancer Report.

Mr Slevin said in particular Australians needed to look more honestly at the role alcohol consumption played in our cancer rates.

“There's no doubt alcohol contributes to a chronic disease like cancer … [including] cancer of the mouth, the pharynx, the oropharynx, cancer of the colon and rectum, liver cancer, laryngeal cancer and cancer of the female breast,” he said.

“Some of those larger, more common cancers – like colorectal cancer and breast cancer – are important, because while it's a small proportion of those cancers that are attributable to alcohol, they are quite common cancers.”

The director of cardiovascular health at the Heart Foundation, Rob Grenfell, said cardiovascular disease, which includes stroke and heart failure, still kills more Australians.

“Both cancers and cardiovascular diseases have a common risk factors including smoking, poor nutrition, overweight/obesity and physical inactivity,” he said.

“It's not about which disease is the biggest killer – we have two very large disease groups that together cause six in 10 deaths.”