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Teaching the Difference Between Cancer Awareness and Cancer Literacy

importance-of cancer-literacy-awarenessBy Ariana Marshall, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of STEM at American Public University and Caribbean Sustainability Collective Director

Each year, we remember most cancers. Active campaigns exist to remind us to wear certain colors in solidarity with cancer patients and survivors. In some cases, the campaigns teach us ways to reduce our cancer risks.

It seems as though every month, we shift our attention to a different type of cancer to raise our awareness:

  • January – Cervical Cancer
  • February – All Cancers (National Cancer Prevention Month)
  • March – Colorectal Cancer
  • April – Oral, Head/Neck and Testicular Cancer
  • May – Bladder, Brain, Melanoma and Skin Cancer
  • September – Childhood, Gynecologic, Leukemia and Lymphoma, Prostate and Thyroid Cancer
  • October – Breast and Liver Cancer
  • November – Lung and Pancreatic Cancer

But how cancer-literate are we? When we see the pink swarms of people walking in memory of a loved one in October, we better understand the scale of our cancer awareness. However, cancer literacy is another issue.

Cancer Literacy Needed to Help People Understand Cancer Risks

To make people more cancer-literate, cancer awareness campaign developers, educators, students and everyone else must focus on how we learn in today’s society. There is a vast amount of information available to us, thanks to the Internet.

Understanding the “how” of learning in the information age equips us with the ability to apply the cancer information we encounter to stay afloat in an ever-changing society. If we are fortunate, we even improve our quality of life and reduce our cancer risk.

Are Cancer Awareness Campaigns Working?

How do we use our learning skills, awareness campaigns and valid information to reduce our risk to cancer? The answer to this question is still unknown, but there are medical researchers who have explored how we teach cancer awareness in today’s society.

Studies done by health experts and computer science educators say that social media is a useful tool for raising cancer literacy during cancer awareness months. But social media is only a one-way communication tool when two-way communication is necessary to evaluate our awareness and literacy.

It is also useful to evaluate the resulting effects of awareness campaigns with respect to reducing our risk and the four stages of cancer control – prevention, early detection, treatment and palliative care.

Establishing the cause and effect relationship between increased awareness and cancer prevention is complex and has limitations. Still, it is necessary to ensure that we channel our resources in the right direction to fight the mammoth impact of cancer.

Your Choices Impact Your Cancer Risks and Risks of Others

Extensive scientific evidence proves that certain products we use increase our risk of cancer.

The chemical burden we place on the environment with our consumer choices also increases the cancer risk for people who live around disposal, industrial and manufacturing sites.

Evidence also demonstrates that the strength of our immune system affects our ability to survive cancer and most health problems. The FDA just approved Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug that could be the first line of treatment rather than radiation or chemotherapy. This drug stimulates the immune system, a development that is already seen by the medical world as a major cancer breakthrough.

We have two choices to make. We can wait for cancer to affect us personally or we can do our best to reduce cancer risks for ourselves and other people.

Cancer is a worldwide burden. It is the leading cause of death worldwide and often results from the use of tobacco, an unhealthy diet or infectious agents. Medical experts estimate that 84 million people will pass away by 2018 due to cancer. That is approximately double the population of the entire Caribbean. These numbers affect us all.

Cancer survivors and families cannot battle this health problem alone. All of us make choices daily that increase or decrease the cancer risk of other people. There is an ocean of information available about why we should make our consumer choices sustainable, non-hazardous, healthy and resilient.

Our consumer choices can grow or shrink the market for lower cancer risk products. If more of us buy products which reduce our risk to cancer (from the manufacturing to consumption stage), the cost of these products shrink. Our consumer choices can make low-risk products financially affordable for everyone and low-risk jobs accessible to more of us.

We have a collective responsibility to ensure our global health by the choices we make as consumers. What choices will you make?

About the Author

Dr. Ariana Marshall is a faculty member with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, American Public University. She is the Director for the Caribbean Sustainability Collective and focuses on culturally relevant sustainability and climate change adaptation. Ariana completed her doctorate in environmental science at FAMU.

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