From mud to golden fields

Earlier this year, I drove from Iowa City to Des Moines for the spring meeting of the Iowa Cancer Consortium (ICC) – Iowa’s collaborative cancer control program that focuses on reducing the burden of cancer for all Iowans.  It was a time when we were experiencing heavy rain and flooding.  The sky was gray, and the fields were bland and full of pockets of standing water.  There was talk that, with all the mud, the crops might never get planted.  Fortunately, Iowa farmers eventually got the seeds in the ground.

Last week I attended the fall meeting of the ICC.  The early morning drive to Des Moines was spectacularly different with the glow of the rising sun shining on the golden crops and rolling fields.  The harvest was going full bore, with farmers up early and in the fields.  I listened to Iowa Public Radio on the drive, and heard the crop reports indicating that, despite the wet spring, the yield this year will be better than expected.   The farmers knew that if they were patient and persistent, they would reap what they sowed.

The ICC meeting itself included an inspiring and provocative presentation by Dr. Otis Brawley on cancer control in the 21st century, and many other excellent talks and conversations.  I came away from the meeting realizing that, just like Iowa farmers, we need to show patience and persistence with the knowledge that we will eventually reap what we sow.

When it comes to cancer prevention, reduction in tobacco use remains front and center.  There is also the newly recognized strong link between cancer risk and obesity.  Together these controllable life-style factors are responsible for over half of all cancer deaths. Lifestyle factors are challenging but not impossible to change with persistent efforts over time.  Indeed, considerable progress has been made in reducing tobacco use. Smoke-free air laws and smoking cessation programs have contributed to a decline in adult smoking rates from 25 percent in 1997 to 18 percent today. These efforts didn’t impact on the burden of cancer immediately.  For example, efforts to reduce tobacco use decades ago is only now resulting in a measurable reduction of lung cancer in women.  However, the impact they have had on reducing the burden of cancer is huge.  What was true in the 1990s and is still true today is that we need to persist despite the challenges and the recognition that the payoff for efforts in cancer prevention today will be many years down the road.

On the research front, we are all frustrated by how our government is making it more difficult to conduct cancer research these days.  Nevertheless, we still are making incredible advances in understanding cancer at the molecular level.  These advances in themselves are not going to reduce the burden of cancer tomorrow, but are the foundation for yielding new and better treatments in the years ahead.

The members of the ICC know we need to give the best possible care to those who need our help today.  At the same time, we can’t be let progress in cancer be stopped by the muddy nature of the challenges immediately before us.  We need to work together with a balance of patience and persistence towards the golden harvest of a better future with less cancer.

To learn more about the ICC, go to www.canceriowa.org .