Blair Horner: Update on the Fight Against Cancer


The nation has made tremendous progress in reducing the number of cancer deaths.  But a new trend is developing – cancers caused by the American lifestyle.

First, some statistics.  Recently, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries issued their annual update on cancer.  Their year’s report found for all cancers combined, incidence rates among men dropped each year from 2004 through 2008.  Among women, cancer incidence rates declined from 1998 to 2006, with rates leveling off from 2006 to 2008.  Death rates continued to drop, as they have since the early 1990s.  

In addition to drops in overall cancer mortality and incidence, this year’s report also documented the second consecutive year of decreasing lung cancer mortality rates among women.  Lung cancer death rates in men have been decreasing since the early 1990s.

However, the latest analysis also identifies the effects of excess weight and lack of physical activity on cancer risk.  And that news is not good.

For more than 30 years, excess weight, insufficient physical activity, and an unhealthy diet have been second only to tobacco as preventable causes of disease and death in the United States. But while tobacco use has declined significantly since the 1960s, obesity rates have doubled.  

According to the American Cancer Society in the United States, 2/3 of adults are overweight or obese and fewer than half get enough physical activity.  Among children and other young people, 1 in 3 is overweight or obese, and fewer than 1 in 4 high school students get recommended levels of physical activity.  For people who do not smoke, excess weight and lack of sufficient physical activity may be among the most important risk factors for cancer.

Cancers of the esophagus, the colon and rectum, kidney, pancreas, and breast among postmenopausal women are associated with being overweight or obese.  Several of these cancers also are associated with not being sufficiently physically active.

If current trends continue, cancers resulting from obesity and physical inactivity may eclipse cancers caused by tobacco use.  That is, unless the nation acts.

In June 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other departments released the first-ever National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy.  It focuses on coordinating prevention, wellness, and health promotion efforts within the federal government and in communities around the nation.

To improve healthy eating, the National Prevention Strategy recommends:

·         Increasing access to healthy and affordable foods in communities.

·         Improving nutritional quality of the food supply.

·         Helping individuals recognize and make healthy food and beverage choices.

·         Supporting policies and programs to promote breastfeeding.

·         Enhancing food safety.

To encourage physical activity, the National Prevention Strategy recommends:

·         Encouraging community design and development that supports physical activity.

·         Promoting and strengthening school and early learning policies and programs that increase physical activity.

·         Facilitating access to safe, accessible, and affordable places for physical activity.

·         Supporting workplace policies and programs that increase physical activity.

·         Assessing physical activity levels and providing education, counseling, and referrals.

At least half of all cancers are caused by American lifestyles – such as smoking, overeating or being sedentary.  These are the behaviors that lend themselves to policy interventions—such as increasing the cost of tobacco products, discouraging the consumption of fast foods and drinks, and encouraging physical activity.  These must be key goals for policymakers – both at the national and state levels.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.


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