Can Cancer Deaths Be Prevented?

Can Cancer Deaths Be Prevented?

For 52 years, our mission at Cooper Clinic in Dallas has been to prevent disease, particularly heart disease and cancer. If we cannot prevent it, then at least we aim to diagnose it early. As a result, we have found among our patient database—a group we have followed for 45 years—they are living at least 10 years longer than the national average and are tending to enjoy life to the fullest up until the end, which we call “squaring off the curve.” 

One way to achieve that goal is to reduce deaths from cancer. On multiple occasions, I have said that “If we could eliminate obesity, inactivity and use of tobacco and alcohol, we could reduce cancer deaths up to 50%.”

For a moment, let’s look at cancer statistics in the United States. Cancer deaths are in second place behind cardiovascular disease, with 558,644 deaths predicted in 2022. Stages of cancer detection determine survivability. Cancer is divided into being localized, regional and distant—with distant metastasis carrying with it the least likelihood of long-term survival.

The type of cancer may also determine survival. For example, lung cancer can be small cell lung cancer or non-small cell lung cancer. With all stages combined, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is 76% for non-small cell cancer and 26% for small cell cancer. For prostate cancer, the five-year survival rate is 98%, and for breast cancer it is 90%. The average age of cancer diagnosis is about 70 years.

Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., making up 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancer combined.

The five-year survival rate for localized lung cancer is 64%, regional is 37%, and for distant metastasis only 8%.

In addressing the possibility of preventing cancer, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health made this statement: “The war on cancer failed because we spent too little on cancer prevention research.” One reason is that most societies are reactive and not proactive. The final phase of research on treatment is simpler than research on prevention. Curing a patient with advanced disease is more dramatic than preventing disease in a healthy person. And perhaps most conspicuously, treatments earn far higher profits than do diagnostic or prevention measures.

The American Cancer Society says that “nearly half of all cancer deaths are preventable.” They list the steps to staying healthy and reducing the risk of cancer as:

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Not using tobacco products
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting plenty of physical activity
  • Eating healthy with plenty of fruits, whole grains and vegetables, particularly cruciferous ones such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower
  • Avoiding midday sun and protecting skin daily with a hat, sunglasses and broad-spectrum sunscreen
  • Getting recommended cancer screening tests

They go on to say that “the cancer death rate is declining because of reduction in cigarette smoking as well as advances in early detection and treatment.” As an example, for many years the only way to diagnose cancer of the lung was with a chest x-ray. By the time the cancer was large enough to be identified, in most cases it had already metastasized and was in the distant phase. For that reason, the five-year survival rate as previously mentioned was only 8%. For more accurate early detection, at Cooper Clinic we have been performing CT scans of the lungs for over 30 years. That technology can detect early cancer the size of a period at the end of a sentence. Initially, we were criticized because of the possibility of excessive radiation exposure. 

But with new technology, that likelihood has been significantly decreased, and now even the Institute of Medicine says that anyone with a 30-pack-year history of cigarette smoking (for example, two packs per day for 15 years) should have a CT examination of the lungs every year. Among our patients, we have seen at least 60% survival for five years and in some cases with surgical removal or medical treatment, we have seen what appears to be a “complete cure.”

That is why I say that preventive examinations of the type performed at Cooper Clinic are the best health insurance and life insurance you can buy. Health insurance is disease insurance, and life insurance is death insurance, and primary care medicine is—in reality—secondary care. We try to keep people healthy, not concentrating on seeing people only when they are sick.

In reality, the majority of people reading this article have most likely never had the chance to have a chest x-ray or a CT examination of the chest to diagnose lung cancer early. But prevention is much more effective and much less costly than treating disease.

I will continue to say that most cancers are preventable if detected early enough. Remember, your health is your responsibility and will determine both the quantity and quality of your life. It is not the responsibility of the government, your physician or the insurance company. And no drug can replicate the benefit of an active lifestyle. 

Once again, I want to remind you of one of my favorite Bible verses—1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” To achieve this Biblical goal, following the recommendations about ways to prevent cancer is a great way to start! ©2022 Kenneth H. Cooper


The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2015 Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois.

Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., known worldwide as “the father of aerobics,” is the founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics in Dallas and chairman emeritus of The Cooper Institute. 

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