February is National Cancer Prevention month
by Caleb Levell
To prevent cancer, the best medicine is often as simple as reducing cancer risk by modifying daily lifestyle behaviors.
In Indiana, death rates from all cancers were 11.2% higher than the U.S. rate in 2015. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Indiana, claiming approximately 13,590 lives per year. According to the Indiana Cancer Control Plan 2018-2020, lung cancer is responsible for the most cancer-related deaths in the state. Nearly another one third of cases exist because of lifestyle factors such as poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, and not maintaining a healthy weight.
The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that nearly half of all cancers in the U.S. could be prevented through lifestyle changes such as eliminating tobacco use, improving dietary habits, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, obtaining early detection cancer screening tests and obtaining timely and appropriate treatment.
In addition to quitting smoking, it is vital that Hoosiers eat healthier and be more active; however, community leaders across the state need to share in this responsibility. By changing laws and shaping physical landscapes, Indiana and its local communities can cause a major health impact by making healthy choices a real, feasible option for every Hoosier. One example of policy change that facilitates cancer prevention through physical activity is Complete Streets.
Complete Streets policies formalize a community’s intent to plan, design, operate and maintain streets so they are safe for all users, regardless of age or ability. Such policies direct decision-makers to consistently fund, plan, design and construct community streets to accommodate all anticipated users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, motorists and freight vehicles. When streets are designed with all users in mind, alternative modes of transportation, such as walking and biking, are more attractive and accessible. For example, when phase one of the Red Line Bus Rapid Transit line is constructed along the College Ave., and Meridian Street corridors in Midtown, areas around transit stations will be enhanced to improve user experience. Curbs, ramps and sidewalks will be installed to make it safer and more convenient for users to access the station.
By improving Indiana’s community infrastructure with Complete Streets, physical activity is not only promoted, but safety is also improved for all users and the unintended negative health outcomes of a less active lifestyle are minimized.
The physical activity opportunities created by Complete Streets reduces cancer risk by aiding weight management, improving hormone levels and boosting the immune system. As an added benefit, physical activity not only lowers risk for chronic disease, but it also helps manage existing chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
Fortunately, Indiana boasts a successful start to fighting cancer with Complete Streets policy changes. Nearly 49.1 percent of Indiana’s population is currently covered by a Complete Streets policy. Early adopter communities include the Bloomington/Monroe County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Madison County, Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Columbus, Richmond, Evansville Metropolitan Planning Organization, Frankfort, Tippecanoe County, Indianapolis, Peru, and Westfield. Of these, the Indianapolis and Peru policies rank not just the best in Indiana, but also as model policies at the national level — as voted on by the National Complete Streets Coalition.
The City of Indianapolis Complete Streets policy was adopted in 2012 and recognized by Smart Growth America as the nation’s best example at the time. According to the City’s website, “The policy ensures that public and private entities plan for all transportation modes when developing a new land use or right-of-way projects.”
To make the next generation healthier, we must continue advocating for comprehensive cancer prevention — in our streets, in our schools and in our communities. Complete street tools such as sidewalks, bike lanes, marked crosswalks, streetlights and accessible pedestrian signals play a key role in fighting the future of Indiana’s cancer burden by providing safe and healthy transportation options that will decrease obesity rates and increase physical activity in Indiana and across the nation.
Caleb Levell is program manager for the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable at the American Cancer Society and the former director of the Indiana Cancer Consortium (ICC), a statewide network that seeks to reduce the cancer burden in Indiana.
A version of this article was published in the February/March 2016 print edition of the magazine.