Outmaneuvering cancer

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t tense up when they hear the word “cancer,” or have some other visceral response to it. It’s one of the few stand-alone words in the English language that can elicit remarkably powerful, prevailing emotions.

Maybe that’s because cancer has affected most of us in one way or another. If we haven’t experienced cancer ourselves, chances are, someone we love and care about has. I lost my mother to cancer.

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Given the widespread physical, emotional, and financial suffering that cancer inflicts, you’d think we’d be more united as a society in doing everything possible to protect ourselves and loved ones against this seemingly ubiquitous disease.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about research. Although getting behind research into a cure is critically important to eradicating cancer once and for all.

Even in President Obama’s State of the Union address, he talked about a new moonshot, raising our sights to become the country that finally cures cancer.

But again, he was talking about research.

I’m talking about prevention.

More specifically, I’m talking about public policies, legislation, community planning, infrastructure, thought leadership, and the grassroots social changes needed to stop cancer before it strikes.

Consider these hard facts:

·         One out of every two men, and one out of every three women, will develop cancer in their lifetime.

·         Cancer costs are projected to reach at least $158 billion in 2020.

·         At least one-third of all cancer cases are preventable.

·         Physical inactivity is the principal cause of burden for 21 to 25 percent of breast and colon cancers, alone.

My point is this: Cancer takes an inexpressible toll. But many cancers are more preventable than we realize.

Individually, there are numerous factors that influence why one person develops cancer and another does not. And a good number of these factors are not within our control. Many aren’t even within our understanding.

Yet, there are things we can do as a society to improve the chances that all of us gain a stronger foothold against this common adversary.

Let’s start with what may be the most alarming, yet hopeful, fact: One in four cancer cases in the United States is from physical inactivity, poor diet, being overweight, and obesity. I say alarming because it seems incongruous that as such a developed nation we could let this happen. I say hopeful because we actually can do something about it.

From my standpoint, the most important place for us to focus is on our kids. Our nation’s children, after all, are both our responsibility and our future.

Sadly, about one in six youth today are obese. Aside from putting them at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses, this means they’re also at risk for certain cancers later, as adults. Lax nutritional standards, inferior P.E. requirements, and truncated opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day only further threaten their health.

Being physically active on a regular basis is one of the most important things we can do to help reduce our cancer risk. The catch is, a kid’s shot at engaging in healthy physical activity on a regular basis is essentially a crapshoot. How much exercise a child gets in a given day is dictated greatly by where they live and where they go to school.

That’s why we need Congress—to protect the right of all kids to adequate exercise each and every day.

One way to do this is to pass federal legislation that increases opportunities for physical activity at school.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is a timely example.

Signed into law by Obama on Dec. 10, the Every Student Succeeds Act ensures that P.E. is now considered part of “the well-rounded curriculum.” By finally recognizing the importance of P.E. to our kids’ education, and now including it in what was once called the core curriculum, the door to funding is open.

Thanks to Congress and Obama working together, schools throughout the country now have a better chance than ever before at securing funding for the very physical education programs that will help them grow into healthy adults.

The Personal Health Investment Today Act—or the PHIT Act—stands out as another important example.

In short, this legislation would help Americans afford exercise-related expenses. Namely, it lets families and individuals pay for youth sports league fees, health club memberships, fitness equipment, and exercise DVDs with pre-tax dollars from health savings (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs).

If passed, this bipartisan-supported bill would help families ensure their kids get the physical activity needed for a healthy future.

Cancer is a wily thief. And there’s no one solution comprehensive enough to fully stop it.

But until we embrace the fact that prevention—including regular physical activity—is an essential defense, we’ll never get out ahead of it.

If we accomplish nothing else, let’s afford our children the right to be physically active and healthy no matter where they go to school.  All told, prevention works best when it starts in childhood.

Durkin is executive vice president of Public Policy for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.