THE BLOG

Stopping Cancer Before It Starts

05/18/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

On May 20, 2015, New York State will host its Cancer Prevention Summit in Manhattan.

This bold initiative is the work of the New York State Commissioner of Health, Dr. Howard Zucker, and his colleagues at the New York State Department of Health. Many health related organizations in New York are participating in the Summit, and the audience will be challenged with action points. I am honored to participate in the Cancer Prevention Summit as a speaker, and will introduce the keynote speaker, Dr. Graham Colditz, an internationally recognized leader in the prevention of cancer and other diseases.

The Summit's focus is the primary prevention of cancer -- stopping cancer before it starts -- and leading experts will present their research and insights with those present, and remotely through a live webcast. Creating a society that makes prevention a priority for the next generation is the ultimate goal.

The good news is that over 50 percent of all cancers can be prevented by applying what we know right now. Dr. Graham Colditz will share his current research involving adolescents and adults.

While the evidence is strong for the power of prevention through lifestyle choices and environmental factors, the message of prevention still has not reached the majority of Americans.

The PBS series "The Emperor of All Maladies" is a comprehensive history of cancer in America, the pain and suffering that cancer causes, the roles of patients, their loved ones, and the physicians and other healthcare workers caring for them. While cancer treatments that bring relief, and in some cases, a cure, were highlighted, the series did not shed much light on the prevention of cancer.

The full story of the power of prevention is yet to be told. With more than 50 percent of cancers worldwide considered to be preventable, we need to focus on the ways in which cancer risk is profoundly affected by lifestyle and environmental factors, including diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, tobacco, infectious agents, environmental agents, ionizing and nonionizing radiation, environmental pollutants, and harmful chemicals in pesticides, varnishes, cleaning agents, personal care products, cosmetics and many other products.

The public would welcome the chance to learn about the ways in which cancer risk can be reduced through healthful eating, increased physical exercise, smoking cessation, moderate use or avoidance of alcohol, avoidance of tanning beds, avoidance of over-exposure to the sun, and use of HPV vaccine and Hepatitis B vaccine, all of which contribute to cancer prevention. This good advice, and much more, will be presented at the Summit on May 20th.

As we learned recently by the outpouring of resistance from the food and beverage industry to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, even the simple act of advocating for the consumption of more vegetables and fruits and advising the public to drink water to quench thirst is met with opposition by those industries threatened by a public interested in eating and living more healthfully.

Toxic chemicals present in our homes, schools, work and recreational spaces present a real threat to our health and are increasing cancer risk. If the federal government cannot effect meaningful reform of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, then each state will have to take responsibility to protect consumers from harmful chemicals in many household and personal care products. The Summit will present scientific evidence regarding the damaging effects of many chemicals on adults and children. The profound effect of these chemicals on children and adults should be acknowledged, and steps should be taken to protect consumers.

Some cancers have an infectious cause, but vaccination rates for hepatitis B virus, associated with liver cancer, and human papilloma virus (HPV), associated with cervical, penile, and head and neck cancers are low. The public needs to be encouraged become vaccinated to prevent these cancers.

Researchers have determined that physical activity is associated with a reduction in the risk of cancer of the breast, colon, prostate and endometrium (lining of the uterus), and probably many other cancers, as well.

In addition to reducing cancer risk, physical exercise helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other conditions. Physical activity is also a key factor in the prevention of overweight and obesity, both of which increase the risk of several cancers.

Increased physical activity in schools, at work and at home can be achieved. Our schools are challenged by many academic requirements, but physical activity should still be a priority for the sake of our children's mental and physical health. Taking the stairs instead of an elevator, walking to an appointment rather than taking a bus, subway or taxi, and spending times outdoors in warm and sunny weather are all easy ways to increase daily physical activity.

During break time during the Summit, the audience and speakers will be led in simple physical exercises that can be done at work or home. The Summit will provide practical examples of ways in which we can all be more physically active each day.

When we talk to our middle and high school students about alcohol abuse, do we explain that alcohol raises the risk of cancer? Teaching young people about healthy lifestyles should include a conversation about cancer risk factors.

Cigarette smoking is still a major cause of cancer worldwide.

The World Health Organization reports that tobacco use causes approximately 20 percent of cancer deaths, and 70 percent of lung cancer deaths around the world.

According to the American Cancer Society, smoking kills more Americans alcohol than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, homicide, illegal drug use and suicide combined.

Vigilant smoking cessation programs in schools are still necessary. We should all be aware that smoking causes not only lung cancer, but many other cancers including cancer of the throat, voice box, nose and sinuses, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, colon, kidney, bladder, ovary, cervix and acute myeloid leukemia.

And because e-cigarettes contain nicotine and many other harmful chemicals, young people should be advised not to use them. There is clear evidence that e-cigarettes promote inflammation of the airways and malignant transformation of the bronchial cells.

At the Cancer Prevention Summit on May 20th, 2015, experts in public health will challenge us all to consider what we could be doing better to prevent cancer. Most importantly, we need to commit to a collaborative effort, involving every segment of our society. We can all contribute to a healthier, more vigorous society, and a world where cancer is considered a preventable illness.

Dr. David J. Hunter is the Vincent L. Gregory Professor in Cancer Prevention and Dean of Academic Affairs at Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health. Referring to cancer as the "emperor of all maladies," Dr. Hunter offered this comment: "As we admire the emperor's parade of new discoveries and potential breakthrough medicines, we need to be like the clear-eyed child with the courage to point out the obvious -- a cancer prevented does not need to be cured."

The prevention of cancer will be a priority for New York on May 20th, as it should be for all of America, all of the time.

This blog post is part of a series produced by the New York State Department of Health in conjunction with their Cancer Prevention Summit (New York, May 20). For more information about the event, read here.