Prevention’s True Potential in the Ongoing “War on Cancer”

The latest in the New York TimesRetro Report series tackles the launch and subsequent progress of the Nixon administration’s 1971 National Cancer Act, dubbed the “War on Cancer.”  The ultimate hope of the act was that – with an economic and human power push similar to that used with the first moon landing in the late 60s – cancer as a disease could be controlled and cured nationally in just a handful of years.

As the incisive video reports, the reality has been quite different. No overall cure arose in 5, 10, or even 40 years. And for most of those years, in fact, cancer seemed to be a disease continually on the rise.

More recently, however, there have been positive signs – most notably a downward trend in overall death rates from the disease.  Some of these gains have certainly come from new and improved treatments, and some from factors related to prevention and screening – drops in smoking, fewer women using post-menopausal hormones, and improving rates of screening for breast, colon, and cervical cancer.

And it is this progress in prevention that makes the closing sentence of the video’s accompanying article written by Gina Kolata very strange.  She closes the piece saying that prevention is the area least understood when it comes to the fight against cancer:

“The biggest challenge, prevention, remains. And other than stopping smoking, nothing yet has been terribly promising.”

The reality, though, could not be be farther from the truth.  The real hope in controlling cancer – especially from a practical standpoint – is through prevention, and there is compelling evidence that over half of all cancer cases (and 75 percent of some specific kinds of cancer) could be prevented by things we already know and that we can all do:  such as exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, eating a healthy diet, avoiding too much alcohol, and getting appropriate screening tests.

Yes, the challenge in cancer prevention – as in most other important chronic diseases – is helping people put such behaviors into practice.  But to deny their potential benefits in the efforts to control cancer is careless and wrong.

To see just how much of an impact a healthy lifestyle can have on cancer risk, see these resources:

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