We all have our socially-motivated priorities and often getting people to share them is a challenge. We see "challenges" to participate in one activity or another, for a wide variety of causes, every day. Since founding Less Cancer, aka Next Generation Choices Foundation, in 2004 I have worked towards educating and creating policies that work to prevent cancer. That is my real challenge, and one I hope will gain momentum in our country.
Prior to that, while inspired to do the right thing, I started an effort that provided free mammograms. What I learned very quickly was that even while we were helping with a prevention effort, incidences of breast cancer continued to rise, as they do to this day. The right intentions were in place, but I as a layman did not understand the scientific or medical models that I was attempting to change.
Eventually, I understood that my investment towards ending cancer was feeding into a model that was unsustainable: The cash cow of the health care system that provides a funding stream for patient testing, which did help reduce overhead with early diagnoses, but ignored prevention. While I understand the importance of cancer treatment and medical care, my interest is specific to ending cancer. For me, the only winners in many of these efforts seemingly are the growing number of "for profit" health care system. Don't get me wrong, I am all for people making money; but we need to be clear on the goals. Are we going to be helping institutions become financially stronger? Or are we going to work to end cancer once and for all? It is a different kind of challenge.
For Less Cancer, it is all about addressing the preventable cancers, or as I like to call the low-hanging fruit relative to preventable environmental exposures and lifestyle choice. In reality, our work is anything but low-hanging fruit, because the greatest hurdle is overcoming powerful corporate forces and, in turn, shifting the current culture.
A few examples illustrate the point:
It makes little sense when we live in a country with so many resources and options that 10 million adults a year continue to use indoor tanning salons despite directly-related cancers such as melanoma.
It does not add up that we do not have protections in place that inadequately protect the public for the over 80,000 chemicals in the marketplace. The most recent attempt of any success is a chemical lobby effort called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act that is rejected by many experts and organizations on the side of protecting human health and the environment. We as a country market foods to families that have known health risks, and have those same corporate lobbyists pushing back with "nutritional" guidelines that benefit corporations not human health.
Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported:
"Scientists are now concerned about common baked goods that contain potassium bromate, a possible cancer-causing additive, according to a new analysis by Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit agency found the chemical in 86 breads and other baked goods, including such well-known products as Hormel Foods breakfast sandwiches, Weis Kaiser rolls and French toast, and Goya turnover pastry dough." The article continues that, "Because of the health concerns linked to the chemical, a number of countries -- including the United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil, as well as the European Union -- have restricted or banned its use in food. California, the only state that regulates potassium bromate, requires a Prop. 65-mandated warning label on food containing it."
Today in the United States you can have large-scale pesticide application sites located next to schools. Repeat: Active spraying adjacent to schools and playgrounds at a time that the incidence for childhood cancer has never been greater.
The newest threat is the marketing of fruit flavored smoking devices to children, even though we know about the terrible negative effects they can have. The Centers for Disease Control reported,
"Current e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014. Findings from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey show that current e-cigarette use (use on at least 1 day in the past 30 days) among high school students increased from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, rising from approximately 660,000 to 2 million students. Among middle school students, current e-cigarette use more than tripled from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014 -- an increase from approximately 120,000 to 450,000 students."
These products come from the companies that market cigarettes, that are also linked to close to a half million deaths a year. And they all have teams of lobbyists whose jobs are to push back on anything that works to protect human health. The crazy part of this is that many of these lobbyist efforts also include funding the very cancer treatment organizations that are far wealthier than our grassroots efforts to prevent cancer.
Against these forces, the effort to prevent cancer requires much work and funding if we are ever going to make a dent in climbing incidences of cancer.
That is the real challenge. Often I am asked to be part of walks or other "challenge" activities to support research and patient support. I try to support many efforts where and when I can, timing permitted.
However, my priority is prevention, followed by hands-on patient and family care. That hands-on care, to me, involves driving a carpool, preparing meals, grocery shopping and helping to make life happen at every level at a time when the lives of the cancer patient and their loved ones are exploding. But sometimes the term "patient care" gets co-opted by health care systems, helping to defray services, which in turn gives them more funding.
Since 1984, the American Cancer Society has had its "challenge," as 8 million walkers have participated in Making Strides events in more than 270 communities across the country, raising more than $460 million to fight breast cancer. While I certainly honor their work, I have to wonder what that funding could do to turn increasing incidences of cancer around. The American Cancer Society has quite a strong financial model; yet while they have been fighting cancer for over one hundred years, today we have more incidences cancer not less.
The World Health Organization's World Cancer Report predicts that "Cancer cases are expected to surge 57 percent worldwide in the next 20 years, an imminent 'human disaster' that will require a renewed focus on prevention." The raw numbers are an increase from an estimated 14 million annually in 2012 to 22 million within two decades. Over the same period, cancer deaths are predicted to rise from 8.2 million a year to 13 million.
We all want "Less Cancer" -- everyone wants to end cancer. But we are not working with the evidence-based science to prevent the countless exposures that can reduce cancer. It bears repeating: up to 50 percent of all cancers are preventable. We continue to pollute the Earth and ourselves; we make poor and sometimes uninformed choices. The cataclysmic outcome often manifests itself as cancer.
Now is the time for America's effort to end cancer to put all efforts into preventing this wicked disease. We can do more to put policies in place to prevent cancer and in turn extend and save lives. If we are going to make any changes on the cancer frontier, the focus must not be on building great cancer institutes, but rather developing the strategies to reduce the incidences, not just improve treatments.
If 50 percent of all cancers are preventable, we need to start hearing news about cancer declining, not increasing.
Are we as a nation up to this challenge?