Cancer: ‘It’s Not Beyond Us’

written by Elise Miller, MEd
Director

Hundreds of events were organized worldwide in recognition of World Cancer Day last week. The theme this year: ‘It’s not beyond us’. CHE Partner Génon K. Jensen, Executive Director of Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) gave the keynote address at Malta’s World Cancer Day event, noting that few countries are currently calling for strengthened environmental policies to help prevent cancer. Jensen also observed that only within the last 18 months has “the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) cancer agency (IARC) officially recognized air pollution as a contributor to lung cancer…and a positive association between higher levels of air pollution and an increased risk of bladder cancer.” Given the scientific evidence that has been mounting for decades linking pollution and other chemical exposures with various forms of cancer, this acknowledgement of environmental contributors to cancer seems a terribly long time in coming, particularly for those who are debilitated and die from these conditions every year.

Sadly, worldwide statistics regarding cancer only continue to look worse in the coming years. WHO states that deaths from cancer are projected to rise to over 11 million by 2030, up from 8.2 million in 2012, and the number of new cases each year is expected to increase by 70% in the next two decades. In the US, federal research dollars for cancer have remained essentially flat in recent years (and are likely not to increase given current Congressional priorities). Most of those funds go to study cancer treatments and screening technology, not prevention.

So my question simply is: Given 30% of cancers around the world are considered preventable, how can we say cancer is ‘not beyond us’ if we continue to give mostly lip service to the prevention end of the equation?

President's Cancer Panel reportFortunately, a number of highly dedicated organizations, like HEAL in the EU, the Breast Cancer Fund in this country, and many others, continue to bring attention to the science on environmental contributors to cancer. The President’s Cancer Panel report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now“, published in 2010, was a major breakthrough in this arena. Even last month the article, published in Science, that asserted that most cancers are bad luck was met with a strong response from colleagues who pointed to the wealth of scientific literature on links between environmental contaminants and cancer. [See: NRDC blog post: No, cancer is not mostly bad luck—the role of environmental factors and Cancer risk: role of chance overstated in Science.]

For CHE’s part, our most recent push to highlight cancer prevention is in the form of A Story of Health, a multi-media eBook launched just a couple weeks ago. If you missed CHE’s call on childhood leukemia—”Stephen’s Story” in A Story of Health—then you can listen to the MP3 recording.

Maybe, just maybe, WHO will announce on World Cancer Day 2030 that because of stronger environmental policy and the prioritization of prevention that we’ve turned the tide on cancer—that far fewer people than anticipated have died of cancer and, most important, the incidence is going down. But that possibility is indeed beyond us unless…unless we continue the increase the drumbeat of preventive action and make it no longer possible to ignore.

If you are interested in learning more about cancer and the environment you can join CHE’s Cancer Working Group and related listserv.

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