At least one-third of cancer cases already are known to be preventable.
I COMMEND President Obama’s call for invigorated efforts to find a cure for cancer in his recent State of the Union address. Cancer remains a leading cause of death in the United States, second only to cardiovascular disease. Almost 600,000 people — nearly the population of Seattle — will die of cancer in the United States in 2016, and more than 1.6 million will be newly diagnosed.
While new cures are needed and can’t come soon enough — and are being vigorously pursued by world-class research institutes right here in our area — it’s important to recognize that one-third (and potentially more) of cancer cases already are known to be preventable.
We also know that prevention strategies can make a difference. We have succeeded, with hard-fought gains over decades, in reducing tobacco-related deaths. However, tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing nearly 440,000 people per year. Tobacco use accounts for at least three out of every 10 cancer deaths, primarily due to lung cancer.
What many people don’t know is that obesity is also a major risk factor for cancer. In fact, obesity contributes to as many as 84,000 cancer diagnoses each year, putting it on track to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of cancer in the United States.
Obesity plays a role as a contributor to a number of types of cancer, including colorectal, breast, uterine (endometrial) and kidney cancers. It also increases the risk for development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Prevention measures can pay off twice, not only to protect against cancer but also against these other diseases.
In addition to reducing smoking and obesity, there are many other cancer-prevention opportunities.
• Improved diet: Approximately 75 percent or more of colorectal cancer risk has been linked to diet.
• Limited exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation: UV radiation from sun exposure and indoor tanning devices are responsible for the majority of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
• More physical activity: Lack of physical activity has been linked to increased risk for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. Reducing body weight through increased activity may reduce the risk for several other cancers associated with being overweight and obesity.
• Reduction in the use of tobacco and alcohol: The vast majority of esophageal and head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol.
• Vaccination against HPV (human papilloma virus): HPV causes almost all invasive cervical cancer in women, 95 percent of anal cancers in men and women and 70 percent of cancers of the throat, tongue and tonsils.
• Vaccination for hepatitis B and treatment for hepatitis C: Chronic hepatitis B and C account for almost all primary liver cancers.
We can’t depend on exhortations and personal fortitude alone to achieve our goals any more than we can depend on the personal commitment of individual researchers to find the next cure for cancer.
We need to reinvigorate efforts to ensure all people are able to take these preventable measures and reduce their risks. Success requires many hands working together across sectors — from prenatal and early child-care providers, schools and workplaces, to transportation, housing, urban planning, local government and health-care providers.
Momentum is building to save more lives through prevention. Washington state’s Healthier Washington plan is working to transform our health-care system for better population health, for example through the Accountable Communities of Health initiative. Together with King County’s Best Starts for Kids initiative, the efforts are providing new opportunities to put prevention front and center and to start curing cancer — as well as other leading causes of death and disability — today.
Research is critical, but we don’t need to wait for new cancer cures to start saving lives now.