Last week’s Health Wonk Review included an excellent article by Maggie Mahar, focusing on the real statistics around cancer deaths. Her article provides a lot of detail about the actual cancer risks for various demographic groups, rather than just lumping everybody (including smokers) into one group.
Maggie notes that the most important things we can do to decrease the incidence of cancer and increase survival odds would be a serious effort to help people quit smoking (and avoid starting in the first place) and genuine access to effective cancer treatment for all Americans, regardless of economic status. (And she notes that just because people have health insurance does not mean that they truly have access to care, including the most advanced cancer therapies.) I agree.
I would also add one more thing to Maggie’s list: nutrition. We know that poor nutrition is a cause of cancer. And theoretically, it should be easier to increase access to high quality foods like fruits and vegetables than to increase access to chemotherapy (not to mention that prevention is probably more effective than cure). But just as poverty is linked with cancer, so too is poverty linked with a decided lack of access to foods that are helpful in preventing cancer. In a neighborhood where the only “grocery” store is the corner convenience store, and where most people don’t have any access at all to stores that sell fresh produce and whole grains, simply telling people to eat better is useless. In addition, people who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet don’t often have time to spend in the kitchen chopping veggies and steaming rice. Helping people eat better requires more than just telling them to do so. We need policy changes that make junk food more expensive, and nutritious food less expensive and more widely available.
Colorado ranks among the top of the list in terms of how many people eat the recommended amount of produce each day, and yet the vast majority of our adults are not getting the recommended amounts (we only rank near the top because so many other states are doing so much worse). Health care reform has focused largely on expanding access to health insurance for the millions of Americans who are currently uninsured, and that’s a good start. But eliminating tobacco use and increasing access to nutritious food could go a long way in terms of improving the health of the American people.