Sunday, Feb. 4, is World Cancer Day. It is a day to focus on what we can do to address the leading cause of death worldwide. And, like most days, on Sunday I am thinking about how Utah can lead the way.
Utah has fewer cancer deaths relative to its population size than any other state in the U.S. Our healthy lifestyle choices are a key factor in our state’s lower rates of death due to cancer.
Nevertheless, cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in Utah, taking the lives of more than 3,000 of our friends, neighbors and loved ones each year. And next year, more than 10,000 Utahns will be diagnosed with cancer.
Clearly, the best way to reduce cancer deaths would be to prevent the disease from developing in the first place. It is estimated that 50 percent of all cancer deaths could be prevented if people stopped smoking, avoided heavy drinking, exercised regularly and maintained a healthy weight. Utah has the lowest percentage of adult smokers in the nation, but, still, about 10 percent of adults in Utah smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer and contributes to 17 other types of cancer. We need to dedicate resources to understand why some Utahns continue to smoke. And we need to develop safe and effective interventions to help them quit, for example, by building on the success of the Utah Tobacco Quit Line (800-QUIT-NOW).
Sometimes, no matter how committed a person is to healthy living, it is impossible to avoid a cancer diagnosis. That may be because the person has a family history of cancer. We know that about 10 percent of all cancers result from gene changes that run in families. Studies focused on Utah families have revealed an elevated risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma. Even childhood cancers can run in families. We need a concerted effort to identify individuals who might be at increased risk. Then we can work to ensure that affected individuals receive appropriate genetic counseling and are advised about best-practice cancer screening. In many cases, this allows us to prevent cancers outright or to detect them at the earliest stages when they are easiest to treat.
As one specific example of working to address cancers that run in families, a Utahwide collaborative effort pioneered by Huntsman Cancer Institute and Intermountain Healthcare is designed to do just that. Lynch syndrome is an inherited cancer risk condition that is associated with early onset of colorectal and uterine cancers. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that there are about 1 million people who have Lynch syndrome and are at serious risk of developing cancer; however, only about 5 percent of these people know they carry this elevated cancer risk.
The Utah effort tests all newly diagnosed colorectal or uterine cancers for evidence of Lynch syndrome. If Lynch syndrome is identified, family members can be notified and guided to initiate cancer screening at an earlier age. This approach has the potential to reduce significantly — or even eliminate — cancer deaths that result from Lynch syndrome. In fact, Utah’s "precision prevention" approach to eradicate cancers due to Lynch syndrome is one of the recommendations adopted by Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel.5 comments on this story
As Utahns, we should be proud of our healthy lifestyle choices and our status as the state with the lowest cancer mortality rate. But we can do so much more. Utah has the lowest adherence to HPV vaccination guidelines even when we know that this simple vaccination can prevent several types of cancer. In Utah, screening rates for cervical cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer are below national averages. Adoption of recommended cancer screening guidelines saves lives by facilitating detection of cancers at an early stage when they can be more readily treated.
Here in Utah, let’s pledge to lead the world to a place without cancer.
Mary Beckerle, Ph.D., is the CEO and director of Huntsman Cancer Institute.