By Sonni Efron

Contrary to what most Americans think, getting cancer isn’t mostly about bad luck. Rather, cancer is avoidable in the population at large – even though individuals may be particularly at risk because of genetic factors or environmental exposures.

Journalists can improve public understanding by the way they cover the modifiable factors that drive cancer risk, said Elizabeth A. Platz, deputy chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In a briefing for National Press Foundation fellows, Platz (bio, Twitter) noted that while more than half of all cancers could be prevented, the fraction is even higher for some types of disease. For example, 71% of colon cancer cases are avoidable, she said.

The risk factors for colon cancer are well-established: obesity, inactivity, smoking, consumption of alcohol and red meat, and folic acid intake.  Yet only 3.1% of people in a recent study had healthy cancer-preventing habits.

One in four Americans is obese and one in three will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Platz said that repetition of accurate public health messaging does change people’s behaviors – but vulnerable populations are not always getting those messages, or not hearing them often enough.

“The idea that the message about lung cancer and smoking is stale? You’ve got to find a way to report on it because it matters,” she said.

“We still need to hammer this home,” she added.  “The people who are smoking are the most vulnerable in our population.”

The huge drop in U.S. cancer rates is mostly due to the overall decline in smoking, she said. But as of 2018, 13.7% of U.S. adults were smokers, and 5.8% of high school students in a 2019 study had smoked within the last 30 days.