Not long ago, a new medical epidemic arose: "the cancer." When people started to live longer, their aging bodies began to succumb to this disease we only poorly understood. Looking back, it is clear that much has changed for the better.
As we recognize World Cancer Day 2015, we have a lot to celebrate. By a number of measures, we are on our way to beating cancer. The Susan G. Komen foundation is arguably the most powerful medical advocacy organization the world has ever seen, and the growing awareness of lung cancer has nearly suffocated the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry. In almost all corners of the world, we are beginning to live and act in ways that lower our risk of getting cancer.
But the story is not only of progress. Though we've made leaps in our abilities to prevent, treat, and manage "the cancer," our success remains patchwork.
A quick pop quiz demonstrates the point. One-third of all cancer diagnoses are for cancer of the ________. a) bones; b) skin; c) pancreas; d) colon.
One doubts that many would have answered "skin" with any degree of confidence. And that's too bad, because many cases of skin cancer are preventable. But we're not paying attention.
In the past decade, we have seen a magnificent proliferation of the "heart healthy" icons on our foods. But where's the "skin healthy" icons on our soaps, lotions, and sunscreens? And as the NFL and Major League Baseball have brought the Komen Foundation's signature pink to cleats, gloves, bats, and penalty flags, where are the symbols for skin cancer?
Out of sight, out of mind.
Looking ahead, skin cancer is poised to explode. As people live longer -- as individuals routinely celebrate their 80th, 90th, and even 100th birthdays -- their skin will deteriorate. And with this deterioration comes an increase in susceptibility to cancer. This decline is, at the moment, nearly inevitable. That needs to stop. Healthy skin in older age is possible -- and it's an enabler of healthy aging.
This conclusion was reached at the first summit of its kind in Manchester, England, in June of 2014. A cross-sector group of experts from medicine, innovation, economics, and demography convened and agreed that a "life-course of healthy skin" is a pillar of healthy and active aging in the 21st century.
Moreover, it was also agreed that the need for healthy skin was pressing, given the rate at which the population is aging and the increased risk that older adults have in contracting skin cancer.
The data is powerful. Of all cases of non-melanoma skin cancer, more than 80 percent occur in people over 60. And over half of melanoma skin cancers occur in people over 50.
And, with nearly one-third of the U.S. population over 55 within the next five years, it is not only a health imperative to become more proactive in caring for our skin -- but also a social and economic imperative. In other "old" societies like Europe and Japan, the imperative is even greater. In emerging markets, which are still "younger" but are aging at breakneck pace, there is also no time to waste.
To elevate skin cancer to its rightful place at the top of our public health agenda, we will need to see strategies from both public and private leaders.
What Policymakers Can Do
In case you missed it, Congress and Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act at the close of 2014. This was a smart move. It will streamline the FDA review and ingredient approval process so better, more innovative sunscreens can make it to supermarket shelves at a faster pace.
It's a step in the right direction, but let's use World Cancer Day to demand more action from the White House and Capitol Hill. Let's leverage World Cancer Day to get better sunscreens out of the shadows of the FDA's filing system.
Even more, let's ensure that this piece of legislation triggers a basic public policy shift where spending on health - including innovative medicines -- is seen as an investment in healthy aging that will have huge payback. From FDA regulations to government pricing policies, the next wave of innovative cancer medicines will be facilitated by a supportive environment innovation.
What Health Companies Can Do
If history is any guide, we are best at beating diseases when science, innovation, and business strategy come together. Looking at skin health as well as cancer treatment and prevention, we might be witnessing the first sign of such a marriage. Reuters recently reported that Nestle is planning to open 10 "skin care research centers" worldwide.
This is the latest sign that Nestle is investing seriously in dermatology, with a particular interest in age-related skin conditions. Nestle's Galderma, which has been in the skin health business for decades, is showing a commitment to a life course of healthy skin for all of us. This includes skin cancer, of course, but it also stretches to other conditions of our aging skin, which, when addressed, will lead to a healthier aging.
This World Cancer Day, let's reflect on our tremendous progress. Since "the cancer" was first recognized as a lethal disease, we've made remarkable strides in prevention and treatment. But it's time to broaden our lens. Our skin is our first line of defense, and also the site of one-third of all diagnosed cancers.