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September 7, 2021 · OPINION

Yes, we can prevent cancer and other chronic diseases

Stock Photo
Making healthier food choices can reduce cancer risk.
By Bill Couzens
Less Cancer President

Many chronic diseases — including cancer — are often considered preventable. However, a lot depends on how and where we live and our understanding of the social determinants of health in our community. Access to healthcare is not on equal footing for everyone, especially those who are homeless or hungry.

In my job as founder of Less Cancer, we work to lower health risks associated with cancer. In my personal life, I also work to turn my health around, battling years of immobility, pain and obesity.

The tools we use at my job include education, continuing medical education, best practices and policy. Personally, I have used much of the information Less Cancer uses to educate the public. That said, I am fortunate to have access to health care and preventative support for exercise and nutrition. Not everyone can.

The National Cancer Institute’s list of the most studied (known or suspected) risk factors for cancer includes age, alcohol, cancer-causing substances, chronic inflammation, diet, hormones, immunosuppression, infectious agents, obesity, radiation, sunlight and tobacco. Some of these — such as growing older — can’t be avoided. But limiting your exposure to other factors may lower your chances of developing certain cancers.

For instance, tobacco continues to kill almost a half of million people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. Additionally, more than 41,000 deaths result from exposure to secondhand smoke. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. These are preventable deaths, and they impact families, communities and the country.

As a former smoker with a three-pack a day habit, I understand how this addiction thrives and how hard it is to quit.

Another bit of disappointing news from the NCI is that the “safe” amount of alcohol — the amount that does not increase cancer risk — is zero cocktails a day. I don’t drink as much as I used to, especially wine, because of the sugars. When I do drink, it is diluted bourbon with ice, water or a no-sugar additive. Not great.

Where do these stark realities leave me? I could tell myself — defensively and incorrectly — that almost everything seems to cause cancer. It doesn’t.

And I could say a little bit of indulgence won’t hurt. That’s not completely true, either.

My diet now is primarily plant-based. Sugar is a worse addiction for me than cigarettes, so eating one cookie is not the end of the conversation. There’s more to come.

Sugar worked in my brain for chronic pain. It gave me slight highs, waves of energy and made me feel more alert. Or so I thought. Insidiously, it was making me sicker each day.

My first big step towards living a healthier life started when my son was a newborn with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which meant he had trouble breathing. When I understood he could not be near smoky air or clothes, I traded my cigarettes for licorice. That was more than 25 years ago, back when I thought sugar and smoking were not big deals.

Unfortunately, there is no absolution for the preventable risks that we all indulge in, such as eating the wrong foods. It can take weeks to work off that “big gulp” soda or sleeve of Oreos consumed on impulse. Early in my transition towards better health, I started walking and made air kiss attempts to improve my diet. These were my first steps in making changes in my life. But the real change came when I made a clearer commitment regarding food choices.

Today I rode my bike 30 miles. I could tell myself I deserve a slice of pizza or an ice cream cone. My addiction is sugar. Like an addiction to cigarettes or alcohol, it’s not something I can occasionally visit or negotiate. Oh, I slip. I’m like a dog on a leash passing a bakery; it’s hard to pull myself back.

Another preventable cause of cancer is HPV (human papillomavirus), which is sexually transmitted. The vaccine Gardasil protects against most types of HPV and prevents 90 percent of HPV-related cancers, according to the CDC. For HIV, also a sexually transmitted disease, preventing exposure is the key to preventing several cancers.

Chronic diseases such as cancer can also be caused by exposure to toxic substances as a byproduct of industry. The movie Dark Waters and the book Exposure, by Less Cancer’s board member Rob Bilott, show how chemicals dumped into the environment led to multiple cases of cancer in an unsuspecting community.

I hate to save the BIG headline for last, but the North Star we should all be reaching for is prevention. Not only can we save lives but we can save quality of life for our families and communities by avoiding the hardships that a disease like cancer can bring, from economic stress to loss of life. Collectively as individuals and communities we can do more to secure public health and limit human suffering.

The writer is the founder and president of Less Cancer, headquartered in Warrenton.
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