Press Releases

2002 Releases

Your Community May be Harmful to Your Health:Harvard Report Recommends Policy Approaches to Cancer Prevention

For immediate release:  April 22, 2002 

Boston, MA--Your community may be harmful to your health according to a report published by the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention. Environmental risk factors for cancer are commonly thought to include toxic waste and air pollution. But researchers at Harvard believe that we may be missing the point by not also looking at other elements in our environment, such as access to safe walking paths and smoke-free workplaces. Published in Cancer Causes and Control, the report entitled, Fulfilling the Potential for Cancer Prevention: Policy Approaches, summarizes what is known about cancer prevention and what can be done in our communities to promote and sustain healthy lifestyles. The report focuses on five behaviors --tobacco use, physical activity, weight maintenance, healthy eating, and alcohol use -- all of which have an impact not only on cancer risk but also on the risk of other major chronic diseases.

In 1996 the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention reported that 50% of all cancer risk could be eliminated though a modified diet, increased exercise, limited alcohol intake and cessation of tobacco use. However, to achieve such a significant reduction, it is necessary to develop public policies that hinge on our current scientific knowledge of cancer and on the vast social and political movement currently aligned behind cancer research. According to Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, Director of Education at the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention, "as public awareness of cancer and the potential for risk reduction continues to rise, we must frame policies that effectively utilize our current knowledge of cancer prevention and that reinforce healthy behavior changes. As our report states ‘it is not enough to assume that individuals who are educated about their cancer risk will modify their behavior to lower their risk. Barriers to behavioral change exist beyond the individual at the community level and within the broader social milieu.’"

In other words, you don’t have to live near Love Canal to live in a "toxic" environment. Physical activity is an example. Despite widespread knowledge of the health benefits, most communities in the United States are not structured to accommodate active lifestyles. At the same time that technology has eliminated physical activity in most occupations, school physical education programs that form lifelong habits have been reduced. Both children and adults spend too many hours sitting in front of the television, and our transportation system has evolved to favor cars. Encouraging people to become active requires both promoting the benefits of physical activity amongst individuals as well as supporting ways in which communities can foster healthy lifestyles. The policies recommended in the Harvard report aim to create a prevention-oriented environment that makes risk reduction behaviors easier for individuals to choose and maintain Changes in the environment may also include improving road and sidewalk conditions for pedestrians and cyclists or making workplace stairways as safe, well lit and accessible as elevators.

In addition to the report published in Cancer Causes and Control, the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention has added a Community Action section to its popular Web site, Your Cancer Risk. This new section offer instructions on the many ways people can get involved in their communities to support healthy behaviors and resources needed to take action. For example, the Community Action pages include guidelines on building strong local coalitions, sample school nutrition policies, and information on how to communicate with legislators around these issues. By providing these resources, as well as action steps that are effective and realistic, Your Cancer Risk is a valuable tool for individuals who are interested in lowering their personal risk as well as reducing the risk in their communities.

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Established in 1994, the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention has as its mission to promote prevention as a principal approach to cancer control. Based at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Harvard Center for CancerPrevention targets individuals and their communities through communication, community and academic, partnerships, and cutting edge research.