Friday, November 20, 2009

To the New York Times: Lifestyle is Important in Cancer Prevention

Amidst the current whirlwind controversy over screening mammography, we don't want to forget an important -- if often inaccurate -- article in the New York Times on cancer prevention that ran last Friday, November 13 on the front page (story).  The story downplayed the important role that lifestyle choices can have on lowering cancer risk, whereas very good science has shown for a long time that healthy behaviors could prevent half of all cancer, and up to 75 percent of certain ones. 

Our letter to the editor (which did not run): 
To the Editor:

Re: Medicine to Deter Some Cancers Not Taken (front page, Nov 13)

It’s well established that healthy lifestyle choices can prevent cancer.  To say otherwise is a great disservice.

A recent report by the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded that maintaining a healthy weight could alone help prevent 100,000 cases of cancer each year in the United States.   Add to this the lower risk associated with physical activity, healthy diet, and not smoking, and the numbers become even more impressive. 

Certain high-risk groups could clearly benefit from chemoprevention with drugs like tamoxifen, raloxifene, and aspirin, and physicians should encourage these drugs with their appropriate patients, while being clear about the risks and benefits. 

But to emphasize chemoprevention medications over lifestyle is misdirected.  Guidelines recommend such drugs for only a small percentage of people, whereas lifestyle choices can benefit the entire population, reducing risk not only for cancer but also for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis.  

Graham A. Colditz, MD, DrPH
Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery, Professor of Medicine, and
Associate Director Prevention and Control, Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center,
Deputy Director, Institute for Public Health
Washington University School of Medicine
St. Louis, MO

For more, see our Knol on Cancer Prevention.