Cancer coalition aims to raise awareness

Shifting prevention responsibility to community will reduce cancer cases

By Katie Demeria

In 2012, 41,380 people were diagnosed with cancer in Virginia. In the same year, 14,000 patients in the commonwealth died.

According to the Cancer Action Coalition of Virginia, some of those deaths may have been prevented with increased awareness and action.

The coalition presented its five-year plan to reduce the number of cancer patients in Virginia last week.

The plan states that it “provides a roadmap for the next five years to help direct Commonwealth of Virginia residents to address the burden of cancer.”

According to Dr. Richard Ingram of Shenandoah Oncology in Winchester, cancer prevention is a true shift in focus.

“So much cancer therapy and focus is on treatment of known cancer,” Ingram said. “Obviously from the prevention standpoint, you’re moving the focus backward and trying to initiate efforts to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Most of what the coalition’s plan includes has to do with raising awareness within the Commonwealth. The hope is that by shifting the cancer prevention responsibility onto the community, cancer cases will be drastically reduced.

Encouraging a stronger societal stance toward prevention, Ingram said, could have a long-term impact.

“It could be educational, you could educate the individual that this is a risky behavior, or that they should go get a screening,” he said. “Just starting the conversation gets the ball rolling.”

The single biggest change that could be made in preventing cancer would be an end to smoking, Ingram said.

Tobacco products in general lead to various cancers, including those found in the head, neck, lungs, bladder and even esophagus.

“So if by some magical way smoking could be prevented or stopped altogether, a lot of cancers would be seriously reduced,” Ingram said.

Education, he added, is a key factor in lowering the number of smokers in Virginia. Starting that education with the youth, he said, especially in schools or in pediatric offices, could have an even bigger impact.

According to the coalition’s five-year plan, “On average, 9,242 Virginians will die each year from smoking-related illnesses.”

Ingram said another important way to prevent cancer is through screenings. From a medical standpoint, he said the most effective screening tests are colonoscopies.

“Colon cancer starts as benign, non-cancerous polyps in the colon,” he said. “So if those polyps can be detected before with a colonoscopy, you’re not giving it the opportunity to become cancerous.”

The five-year plan includes such strategies as working with statewide agencies to increase awareness and education, which includes advocating for a reduction in smoking, increased screenings, and even the use of such preventative measures as sunscreen.

Sunscreen, Ingram said, is a good example of an inexpensive way to prevent a cancer that could cost quite a bit in the long run.

“Even though sunscreen is a small benefit for preventing melanoma, it is a small statistical benefit, in my mind there’s no risk to using sunscreen,” he said. “It’s common sense.”

“It’s all about raising awareness,” he added. “You’re always looking for things that create benefit with as little harm as possible.”

With the high cost of cancer treatment on both the individual and the national health care system, Ingram added, taking small steps like using sunscreen can make a big difference.

“The more awareness that is out there for things like this, the more people who will listen and hopefully prevent themselves from developing anything serious,” he said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com