08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Another Reason for Health Care Reform: Winning the War on Cancer

The cancer epidemic strikes as many as one in three Americans and takes the
life of one in four. After 37 years of losing the war against cancer (a war that President Nixon originally declared in December 1971), the federal government is utterly failing to protect us from this menace. This year, 1.5 million people will be diagnosed with cancer. 562,000 people --over 1,500 every day -- will die.

In a recent letter to key Congressional committees (Link to letter), leading representatives of the independent scientific community -- those with no financial ties to polluters and the cancer drug industry - argued that the majority of non-smoking related cancers are soaring, and that this epidemic is due to preventable exposures to cancer-causing contaminants in our environment and the workplace, and ingredients in our consumer products.
The letter appeared to be instrumental in getting the Europeans to act. Citing the letter to Congress, Europe's leading environment watchdog, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) last week reported that the European Commission's Communication on Cancer had "for the first time, the Commission officially acknowledges that cancer prevention should address lifestyle, occupational and environmental causes on an equal footing."

The evidence that environmental causes are the primary cause of preventable cancer is becoming overwhelming. For instance, non-Hodgkins lymphoma is preventable, but its incidence has skyrocketed by 76% in recent years due mostly to common herbicides and black hair dyes. Thyroid cancer has increased by 124% because of unnecessary exposures to ionizing radiation. Testicular cancer has increased by 50%, an increase attributable to pesticides, hormonal residues in meat, as well as hormonal ingredients in personal care and cosmetic products. Childhood leukemia and other cancers, many of which have predominantly environmental causes, are all also increasing dramatically.

Based on recent estimates by the National Institutes of Health, the total costs of cancer are $219 billion a year. The annual costs to taxpayers of diagnosis and treatment amount to $89 billion; the annual costs of premature death are conservatively estimated at $112 billion; and the annual costs due to lost productivity are conservatively estimated at $18 billion. And these are quantifiable, inflationary economic costs. The human costs are of far greater magnitude.

The connection between our losing the cancer war and the need to control costs through prevention is clear. Cancer is not only one of the most costly and sometimes fatal diseases, it is also one of the most avoidable.

Leading figures in the scientific and public health communities have joined together to petition Congress and our federal agencies to enforce the laws that are supposed to protect us from avoidable exposures to carcinogens.

But this fight is going to require a massive grass roots effort to demand that our federal government make cancer prevention a priority, and also to regulate the polluters who funnel unprecedented amounts of carcinogens in our environment, workplaces, and consumer products each day.

Click here if you want to join the Cancer Prevention Coalition or get more information on how to help. Click here if you want to follow the CPC on twitter.

Samuel S. Epstein M.D. is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois in Chicago and the author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on cancer prevention including the groundbreaking Politics of Cancer and, most recently, Toxic Beauty.