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No—Not Everything Causes Cancer

The National Cancer Prevention Workshop, National Cancer Prevention Day and US Congressional Bipartisan Caucus

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Photo By Missy Janes

In the work to prevent cancer early on, the naysayers would say “Everything causes cancer,” “You don’t want to live a life of fear”…or …”If you drink enough water, that will kill you .”

People would react to hearing the mission on less cancer with pithy little comments. Something’s got to kill —right?

Not so much when we understand that over 50% of all cancer is preventable.

When we experience cancer firsthand or through a loved one—through loss and financial ruins—you want to do all you can to prevent the suffering for others. Especially going forward for our kids and their kids, we want to fix what we can—fix what is within our reach.

In 2003, the only time you heard the word “prevention” was seemingly relative to dental hygiene.

Early in our endeavor, we worked on the policies and the best practices that would eliminate cancer risks for communities. We understood that cancer did not have to be an expected stage of life.

Only recently has the general public understood that a lifetime of bad eating isn’t just about weight gain or something unfashionable or untrendy but is an actual cancer risk. Yes, being overweight is a cancer risk for cancers that include meningioma, multiple myeloma, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, and cancers of the thyroid, postmenopausal breast, gallbladder, stomach, liver, pancreas, kidney, ovaries, uterus, colon, and rectum.

Today, despite the work done to reduce unnecessary and preventable risks, sadly, we more clearly understand the cataclysmic impact of harmful chemicals, e.g., PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substance), found in drinking water globally that, indeed, cause cancer. PFAS is a pollutant that consists of human-made chemicals used in industry and consumer products worldwide since the 1950s. These chemicals are in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, some firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil and are now in drinking water in many parts of the United States, and yes, they cause cancer.

My home state of Michigan is seemingly finding PFAS in several locations. In New Hampshire, where Less Cancer is based, PFAS is widespread, and while we are uncertain of the relationship, it has the highest incidence of pediatric cancer in the United States.

It’s bewildering that even though we have known that there has been an increase in cancer rates, especially in children, we have not been doing everything in our power to eliminate and remediate unnecessary and preventable cancer risks.

Most cancer is preventable. However, when we have an administration that places public health on the lowest rung of the ladder, we can look forward to increases in many diseases, not decreases. The administration does not plan to set a drinking water limit for two of the most common PFAS—PFOA and PFOS—as recently reported in Politico.

Policies make all the difference in public health, which we have seen with things like smoking. We understand today that prevention is the best solution for cancer.

This week at the United States Bipartisan Congressional Cancer Prevention Caucus, we heard about PFAS. The following day at the National Cancer Prevention Workshop also on Capitol Hill, we heard more about PFAS, among other exposures. We cannot always take steps through policy, but we often can take steps with education.

The Less Cancer mission is charged with educating the educators and asking community leaders and legislators to seize the role of an educator so they may better protect human health and the environment. Less Cancer partners with the University of Virginia Office of Continuing Medical Education and School of Nursing Continuing Education and the American University School of Public Health to plan and provide this critical education to high school, nursing, and medical students, healthcare professionals, legislators, researchers, community organizations, and others through the in-person workshop and an online global viewership.

2019’s National Cancer Prevention Workshop heard from experts like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, known for her work in identifying the Flint water and lead issue and her recent book What the Eyes Don’t See. US Representatives Chris Pappas, Don Beyer, Ro Khanna, Fred Upton, and Jared Golden all spoke beside world-class experts.

The workshop featured more than 25 cancer prevention speakers in five hours, including topics such as screening, cancer disparities and inequities, chemicals and childhood health policy and advocacy.

Panels were moderated by Jolynn Gardner, Ph.D., CHES (Director of the Public Health Program, American University), Vik Sahasrabuddhe, MBBS, MPH, DrPH (Program Director, HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention Clinical Trials, National Cancer Institute overseeing clinical trials focused on prevention of cervical cancer and other human papillomavirus). And Miles O’Brien, (a veteran independent journalist, the science correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, a producer and director for the PBS science documentary series NOVA, and a correspondent for the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE and the National Science Foundation’s Science Nation series).

Less Cancer is already back at the drawing board to advance cancer prevention because we recognize that cancer should never be an expected stage of life.

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