Making the Case for Cancer Prevention in the Schools

By D'Onofrio, Carol N. | Journal of School Health, May 1989 | Go to article overview

Making the Case for Cancer Prevention in the Schools


D'Onofrio, Carol N., Journal of School Health


Making the Case for Cancer Prevention in the Schools

ABSTRACT: Advances in scientific research indicate school-based cancer prevention programs could

substantially reduce the risk that children and youth will develop cancer in later life.

Nevertheless, scientific evidence alone cannot make a winning case for cancer prevention in

schools. This programmatic emphasis must be justified in relation to the school's role in

achieving national health objectives and concepts of comprehensive health education. Problems in

implementing school health education also must be addressed, but this will require confronting

fundamental value conflicts concerning the mission of schools in American society. After examining

these issues, the author concludes that the case for school-based cancer prevention can best be

advanced through collaboration with others who share a commitment to children and youth, but who

differ in their specific concerns and agendas. (J Sch Health 1989;59(5):225-231)

Smoking, drinking, early sexual activity, unprotected intercourse, and indiscriminate eating are widely recognized as behaviors that harm the health of children and youth. The carcinogenic effects of cigarette smoking are well known, but many will be surprised that all the behaviors mentioned increase the risk that young people will develop cancer in later life. Chewing and dipping smokeless tobacco, excessive exposure to the sun, frequent trips to tanning booths, and working in certain occupations are other behaviors of youth that increase their risk of cancer during adulthood. These practices constitute an agenda for cancer prevention in the schools.

For many cancer experts, the scientific evidence identifying children and youth as important target groups for intervention provides sufficient and persuasive justification for school-based cancer prevention programs. Convincing the school health community of the need additionally requires demonstrating how a programmatic emphasis on cancer relates to the comprehensive school health curriculum and to the school's role in addressing other serious problems that jeopardize the health and well-being of the nation's youth. Even this expanded emphasis may fail to win the support of school administrators and board members who are beleaguered by demands to raise academic standards, test scores, pay scales, and graduation rates while simultaneously resolving problems of school finance, teacher shortages, deteriorating physical facilities, and public confidence.

Examining the case for school-based cancer prevention from various perspectives identifies issues that advocates need to address in implementing the agenda made possible through cancer research.

MODIFIABLE CANCER RISK FACTORS: THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

Scientific research on risk factors for cancer provides the cornerstone of the case for cancer prevention in schools. Through rigorous review of accumulated evidence, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has identified seven avoidable risk factors which, if modified, would contribute substantially to reductions in cancer mortality. The risk factors are 1) tobacco use, including both cigarette smoking and use of smokeless tobacco, 2) alcohol use, 3) diets which are high in fat and low in fiber, 4) exposure to radiation, 5) exposure to certain viruses which appear to be transmitted through sexual contact, 6) estrogens, and 7) occupational exposure to asbestos, benzene, and other substances. Results of numerous investigations link each of these risk factors to cancer, and on-going research continues to advance understanding. Other publications[1] and companion papers in this issue provide further information on some of the seven risk factors.

Behaviors associated with six cancer risk factors are initiated in childhood and adolescence, with early adolescence standing out as a particularly vulnerable period. …

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