Cancer can be a taboo subject and one that is difficult for advisers to raise with clients, even when talking about the benefits of life and health insurance. The solution is to change the conversation around cancer. Instead of talking about the bad things that might happen, Vitality highlights the ways in which regular health checks and simple lifestyle changes can improve wellbeing and help reduce the risk of cancer. By tackling the topic in a different way we’re encouraging people to engage with their own health and improve their life prospects – which helps you to remain positive when discussing health and financial risk with your clients.

A FRESH APPROACH

Vitality’s innovative, proactive approach is similar to one that Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has employed to help improve people’s understanding of cancer: Citizen Science. This groundbreaking project uses innovative apps and games to revolutionise cancer research. Around 500,000 members of the public are now actively engaged with the initiative, helping to speed up our understanding of cancer, which could lead to more life-saving treatments.

Vitality interviewed Cancer Research UK’s Science Engagement and Operations Officer Rupesh Vyas, to find out more about their incredible work:

WHAT IS CITIZEN SCIENCE?

Citizen Science is a form of crowdsourcing – using the general public to collect or analyse huge amounts of scientific data. We’ve seen it employed to great effect by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), for example: more than half a million people now take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch to help build up a snapshot of bird numbers across the UK. And amateur astronomers have helped analyse NASA data through the Citizen Science web portal Zooniverse. But this is the first time a project of this kind has been used in cancer research. Together with our partners, we’ve devised a series of apps and games – three so far – that harness the power of the public to analyse a huge pool of data and drastically speed up research.

WHAT ARE THE AIMS OF CRUK’S CITIZEN SCIENCE CAMPAIGN?

Our research generates tons of data but it takes time and money to turn it into meaningful results – two things our scientists simply don’t have enough of. By enlisting the help of the public, we can unblock these bottlenecks and get to the answers much more quickly. The more people there are analysing data, the more accurate the results will be, and the faster new or kinder treatments can be developed.

The analysis itself isn’t complex. It’s based on simple image and pattern recognition and there are rigid checks in place to ensure any inaccurate results are discounted. It’s also important to remember that this research isn’t affecting any clinical outcome for current cancer patients. It’s simply explorative analysis that can be used to help future patients.

HOW DOES THIS FIT IN WITH CRUK’S WIDER AMBITION TO HAVE 75% OF PEOPLE SURVIVE CANCER WITHIN THE NEXT 20 YEARS?
We’ve set ourselves an incredibly ambitious target. And to ensure we reach it, we constantly need to develop the way we approach our work – to think outside the box. We need to be as innovative, inventive and adventurous as we possibly can in finding ways to accelerate research. Yes, there are computer programmes that can deliver image analysis but they’re not being developed fast enough – we need results now. Our Citizen Scientists can play an invaluable role in helping us get to them.

CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE APPS AND GAMES?
Our first app, Cell Slider, launched in 2013. Users are shown real images of tumour samples and asked to identify cancer cells by their irregular shape. They then record how many have been stained yellow and how bright the colour is. This information can help our scientists look for correlations between cell types and treatment responses. More than 2.5 million images have already been analysed. It would have taken our scientists 18 months to wade through the amount of data that was scrutinised by the public in the first three months after launch.

Next came Genes in Space – the first ever smartphone game to analyse genetic data. Players guide a spaceship along an intergalactic assault course to collect a precious material called Element Alpha. In reality, you’re identifying variations in gene data, which can be fed back to our scientists.

And last October, we launched Reverse the Odds. Players create a magical world and save a race of colourful creatures but at the same time, you’re spotting and analysing cancer cells. The game has gone global – it’s been downloaded in more than 190 countries and you can play it in five different languages.

The whole process has been a real learning curve for us, as we’ve discovered more about the gamer’s mindset. Seasoned gamers tend to look for shortcuts or get competitive so we’ve made the games more complex and engaging. We’ve also introduced a rewards element to Reverse the Odds, so players can win a ‘potion’ if their analysis matches other people’s. We’re constantly thinking of ways to make the products even better.

CANCER CAN BE A DIFFICULT SUBJECT TO TALK ABOUT AND ONE THAT SOME FINANCIAL ADVISERS STRUGGLE TO DISCUSS WHEN IT COMES TO PROTECTING AGAINST SUCH ILLNESSES. HOW EFFECTIVE DO YOU THINK THE CAMPAIGN HAS BEEN IN ENGAGING PEOPLE ON THE TOPIC OF CANCER?

It has been hugely effective, as it has allowed us to engage with an audience that might otherwise be difficult to reach. Many of the players are people who may not necessarily respond to an awareness campaign or enter a fundraising event. But they will download a game. We recently asked YouTube celebrities Jim Chapman and Joe Suggs to promote the apps. They were very excited about what we do and it meant that the message reached their core audience, which is women aged 15 to 25. The response was immense. It’s particularly heartening because this is traditionally a difficult demographic for us to attract.

Ultimately, we’re making cancer less of a taboo. We’re showing people what cancer cells look like. It’s something you don’t often think about but now you can see it on your smartphone. And people can also see that it can be beaten and how they can play a huge role in achieving this aim. So we’re bringing new recruits to the fight in a way we could never have envisaged a couple of years ago.

ARE YOU FOCUSING ON ANALYSING PARTICULAR TYPES OF CANCER THROUGH THIS PROGRAMME? AND HOW IS THE PROGRAMME HELPING CRUK SCIENTISTS IMPROVE THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF CANCER?

Cell Slider and Genes in Space mainly focus on breast cancer, which is the most common cancer in the UK. Our scientists at The University of Cambridge had thousands of tissue samples to analyse and will be publishing the results of their findings very soon. Reverse the Odds looks at several different tumour types – including lung, head and neck – but there’s a big focus on bladder tumours. There are currently two treatment options for bladder cancer: radiotherapy or surgery. We don’t yet have the science to predict who will benefit most from either treatment but Reverse the Odds is enabling samples to be analysed quicker so our research team can get to the answers.

CITIZEN SCIENCE HAS CLEARLY HELPED TO IMPROVE CANCER AWARENESS AND GOT PEOPLE MORE ENGAGED. WHAT MORE DO YOU THINK INDIVIDUALS SHOULD BE DOING TO REDUCE THE RISK OF CANCER IN THE FIRST PLACE?

There’s so much we’re yet to uncover and understand about the causes of cancer. A lot of it seems to be down to bad luck, or simply due to ageing. For some people, inherited genes play a role. But for all of us there are many triggers and risk factors we can control with lifestyle choices. Giving up smoking, reducing your alcohol intake, eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise can all significantly reduce your risk of certain cancers, for example.

It’s also so important to be sun smart and protect your skin from harmful UV rays. While other cancers have declined over recent years, malignant melanomas are still on the increase – the statistics are terrifying. One of the most important things we can all do to protect ourselves is to be open, informed and vigilant. The more we know about the possible signs and symptoms, the earlier we can treat them. People should never be afraid or embarrassed to talk about cancer. Talking about it saves lives.

READY TO CHANGE THE CONVERSATION?

Four ways Vitality can help people engage with their own health and help reduce the risk of cancer:

  1. Discounts on health screens
  2. Free smoking cessation programme
  3. Discount on an activity tracking device and rewards for being active
  4. Discount on monthly gym membership fees at Virgin Active (a joining fee applies
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