By Eduardo Sotomayor, MD, Director, The George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center
I talk about cancer every day. I talk about the immunotherapy research we’re doing in our labs. I talk about the positive trends in outcomes we’re seeing in the clinic. I talk about how we can work together as interdisciplinary health care teams to provide the best possible and compassionate care for our patients.
You know what we don’t talk about enough? Prevention.
Prevention is at the heart of World Cancer Day and National Cancer Prevention Month in February. Throughout this month, people around the world are talking about cancer. They are talking about potential treatments and cures, and yes, they are talking about prevention. But, we need to talk about it more.
Everyone I know has been touched by cancer in some way and I bet you feel that way, too. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that up to 21.7 million people will be affected by cancer every year by 2030—a staggering number that underscores the urgent need for investments in prevention.
One-third of cancer deaths can be prevented with screening, vaccination and lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, yet investment in these interventions remain too low. As of 2014, global spending on cancer medications rose to $100 billion, with over 42 percent of that spending coming from the U.S.—more than any other country. By contrast, the National Cancer Institute spent a little over $220 million on cancer prevention and control in 2015, just under 5% of their annual budget. Think about cancer research like the chapters of a book – for too long we have focused on the final chapter, rather than the beginning of the book where our efforts may have increased impact.
Collaboration between researchers across the cancer continuum and across disciplines can help us bridge gaps between prevention and treatment, especially in underserved communities, but researchers often remain siloed and don’t get opportunities to work together or share results.
When we talk about cancer at the George Washington (GW) University Cancer Center, we talk about uniting basic, population and clinical research to improve outcomes for cancer patients. While initiatives like the Cancer Moonshot have made strides in uniting researchers across disciplines, more work remains to be done as we seek to translate research results into practice and improve patient-centered care.
That is something we can do. But what can you do? After all, we shouldn’t be the only ones talking about cancer prevention.
Stay away from tobacco. Despite improvements in treatment for lung cancer, it still kills more men and women than any other type of cancer in the U.S. One out of every three cancer deaths in the U.S. is linked to smoking, and smoking causes 9 out of 10 lung cancers. In addition to the enormous human cost of tobacco, it also extracts hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs and lost productivity every year. There are lots of resources and support out there for quitting smoking – remember that it’s one of the most important steps you can take to protect your health and the health of your family.
Eat a healthy diet. Studies have shown that being overweight can increase a person’s risk for several types of cancer, and excess body weight may contribute to as many as 1 out of 5 of all cancer-related deaths. Eating lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans may lower your risk for certain cancers, as can avoiding an excess of red meat and processed meats.
Be physically active. Beyond the short-term benefits of exercise, like better sleep and improved well-being, we’re learning more every day about the link between physical activity and reduced risk of colorectal, breast, prostate, lung and endometrial cancer. Exercise can also benefit cancer patients during or after treatment by not only managing side effects, but also by reducing the risk of the disease progression or recurrence.
Get screened. Cancer screening saves lives. By getting screened regularly and following your doctor’s recommendations for your age, family history and other factors, you may improve your chances of finding certain types of cancer early, when treatment is likely to be the most effective. We provide free screenings at the GW Cancer Center and through the GW Mammovan: http://www.supportthemammovan.com/the-mammovan.
This year, once again, the theme for World Cancer Day was “We can. I can.” I can talk about cancer prevention, and so can you. It’s an important reminder that everyone can play a critical role in maintaining their own health as well as advocating for improvements in cancer prevention and treatment worldwide. By uniting and collaborating as a cancer community, here in Washington, D.C., and worldwide, we can make strides against a disease that has already taken so much.