Preventing Cancer

05/20/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Cancer has touched all of us in one way or another. Whether it was a relative, a colleague, or a neighbor, we all know someone who has experienced the anxiety of waiting for test results, endured the rigors of chemotherapy, or felt the heartache of death in cancer's unrelenting grip.

Every year, more than 100,000 New Yorkers are newly diagnosed with cancer, and over 35,000 succumb to the disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in New York, behind heart disease.

Over time, treatments for cancer have significantly improved. Today there are more than 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. But research shows that nearly half of all cancer deaths are preventable -- a staggering figure that begs the question, "Why are we not doing more to prevent this disease?"

The time has come to act, to use the best weapon in our arsenal to combat a disease that still claims far too many lives. Cancer treatments may continue to improve, but stopping the disease from ever occurring is a better option. The best offense is a strong defense.

That's why the New York State Department of Health is hosting its first-ever Cancer Prevention Summit in New York City on Wednesday, May 20. The gathering is an opportunity to explore ways that different sectors can work together to build more preventive strategies into our lives. It's also a chance to highlight the myriad strategies for lowering the risk for cancer.

Of course, not all risk factors for cancer are within our control. A genetic predisposition for cancer for instance, is not something we can change, any more than we change our height or the color of our eyes.

Many risk factors depend on society to do the right thing, like limiting radiation whenever possible, or abiding by clean indoor air policies that reduce secondhand smoke. Exposure to certain carcinogens like benzene, a chemical used to make plastics, rubbers and medications, among other things, can be difficult to avoid, especially if it's in your workplace. Managing these societal threats relies on sound public health policies from government agencies and compliance from corporate America.

New York State has taken an aggressive role in protecting its residents from cancer on several fronts. The Department of Health has a comprehensive tobacco control program that educates the public on the need to quit smoking, as well as a Clean Indoor Air Act that's been in effect since 2003. It promotes the consumption of fruits and vegetables through its Hunger Prevention Program. It wages campaigns encouraging parents to have their children vaccinated for HPV and urges new moms to breastfeed. And it runs a Cancer Services Program that helps uninsured and underinsured adults get screened for breast, colon and cervical cancers.

Of course, taking advantage of these offerings is still up to the individual New Yorker, just like it's up to the individual to reduce the risks that are in our control. Apply sunscreen. Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise regularly. These are the actions that all Americans must take if we are to make a dent in cancer rates. The decision to take a nightly walk, to incorporate fruits and vegetables into meals, and to call a quitline all go a long way toward reducing the risk for cancer.

When cancer experts, researchers, physicians, business and government convene at the Cancer Prevention Summit on May 20th, we hope we'll find ways to encourage more New Yorkers to take action against cancer. It's time to catapult the prevention of cancer to the top of our public health priorities.