1 in 5 cancer diagnoses is preventable

I just saw a patient who I can’t get off my mind.

She’s a 7-year-old girl who has already suffered more in her young life than many of us ever will. That’s because she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and has already had to undergo chemotherapy.

Which puts her at risk of developing another cancer by the time she’s 20. Her mother had brought her to me to find out how she could reduce that risk through nutrition, supplements, and overall healthy lifestyle choices.

And those steps can certainly improve her odds. But she’ll still be at a higher risk than she would have been if she hadn’t had cancer already.

Life just isn’t fair sometimes. Sometimes you can do all the right things and still get cancer. But there’s also a lot that is within your control. This mom recognized that and is being proactive in helping her daughter lead the healthiest life possible.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of this country. But the fact is, 20 percent of cancer cases diagnosed in the United States are preventable. That means that one out of every five cancers comes down to choices we make every day. Smoking, eating the wrong foods, not exercising, drinking too much alcohol, ignoring sensible sun protection, not getting screened for cancer…all of these choices up your risks.

Tell the truth: How many of those choices are you making? Probably at least one, right?

According to a new report in Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Facts and Figures, that would put you in good company. (Though not the sort of company you should strive to be in.)

This report has come out every two years since 1992, alongside the annual publication of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts and Figures.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • Weight problems are on the rise. According to the report, 7 of 10 US adults are overweight or obese. In men the problem may have plateaued, but it’s still on the rise in women — especially black women. Among young people, the figures are stark. Obesity prevalence tripled among people between the ages of 12 and 19 — up to a staggering 21 percent — between 1976 and 2002. I don’t need to remind you that obesity is at the root of countless diseases, including 11 different types of cancer.
  • We’re not exercising enough. In 2015, only about half of American adults met the recommended levels of physical activity each week.
  • Vegetables are scarce. Only 16 percent of American adults said they were eating three or more servings of vegetables per day.
  • Alcohol is plentiful. More than a quarter of adults were drinking more than the recommended amounts of alcohol.
  • We’re not being sun-smart. Despite the fact that we all know the dangers of getting too much sun, people still aren’t heeding the common-sense warnings about sun safety. Sixty percent of high school girls and 52 percent of high school boys say they’ve had a sunburn in the past year. Only 13 percent of adults wear long-sleeved shirts and only 15 percent wear wide-brimmed hats when out in the sun for more than an hour.

Now the report wasn’t all bad news. Smoking rates — including among high school students — are on the decline. Not surprisingly, it varies from state to state. And you can definitely see a correlation between the size of the state-imposed excise tax and the rate of smoking in that state.

Clearly, cigarette taxes are working. So please, someone tell me why we can’t do the same with sugar. Sugar kills far more people each year than cigarettes do. We’ve seen that imposing a tax successfully deters people from smoking. When are we going to learn the lesson and do the same with sugar?