Reducing Cancer Through Healthy Living

Trent Ernst, Editor

Fully half of all cancers are preventable.

With Cancer Awareness month drawing to a close, that’s the message that the Canadian Cancer society wants to send: look to the future, and learn how to prevent cancer.

To that end, the BC and Yukon chapter of the society has partnered with Healthy Families BC to start the website www.wellnessfits.ca, where employees and employers can learn how to create a healthy workplace.

The site offers two program options: the self-serve program for smaller businesses, and the advanced program for larger companies that are able to commit a comprehensive program and need additional tools and support.

Both programs are free, and feature tools to educate and put into practice healthy living choices in five categories: healthy eating, physical activity, healthy minds, tobacco free and sun and uv awareness.

Kerensa Medhurst is a Health Promotion Coordinator out of the Prince George office of the Canadian Cancer Society. She says that people in the north are more prone to these preventable types of cancer than elsewhere in the province. “We have more obstacles to healthy living here in the north. We have colder weather, fewer facilities, we tend to drive rather than walk because the distances are greater and there are often fewer fresh fruits and vegetables at the stores.”

She says the website is one half of the organization’s two pronged approach to encourage healthy lifestyles. “We work with communities, and we work with government at the policy level. We want to get to a point where making the healthy choice is the easy choice.”

This is not always the case now, says Medhurst. “If junk food is your only choice in the vending machine, then what are you going to choose?”

Medhurst says that the Wellness Fits website focuses on workplace health, because people spend so much time there. “We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else. Also, it is an opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with other people interest in health.”

She says there are activities and challenges and that people can work together. Research has shown that, if they have someone to do the program with, more people are willing to stick with it.

And it isn’t just employees that reap the benefits of healthy living. Healthy employees have 25 percent less sick leaves, 25 percent less health costs and 32 percent lower compensation and disability costs.

“For the employer, it is a benefit, too. It makes employees healthier, happier and reduces turnover,” says Medhurst. “If you were come to a booth where you see one presentation on healthy eating, that doesn’t have much of an impact, but if you change the culture at work, people are going to stay with it.”

The self-serve program starts with an Employee Interest Survey, which allows employees to specify what aspects of wellness interest them and their current level of fitness and health.

Under each of the five categories listed above, there are four pdf resources: an action plan, a list of education tools, a list of action tools and a list of support tools.

Under physical activity, for instance, the action plan is designed for a group to come up with their own plans under each of the other three sections: for education, an employee might organize a lunch with a local fitness instructor on the importance of physical activity. Under the action plan, someone might be tasked with creating a workplace walking group. Under support, someone might take on the challenge of promoting the use of stairs.

Medhurst says the program is customizable. “Each workplace is very different. Every workplace is different.”

For a place like the mines, where employees can’t really get out and go for a walk without the risk of getting run over by a haul truck, there are options, says Medhurst. “At the mine, there could be a little bit of paid time to do exercise. There could be opportunities to do stuff off site, like paying for a pass to the swimming pool. Prizes, incentives, paid time…those things go a long way.”

One of the north’s biggest challenges is higher than average rates of lung cancer. By no coincidence, northern BC has higher smoking rates than the provincial average: around 24 percent, compared to the provincial average of 13 percent. Across Canada, the rate of smokers is just over 20 percent. “Tobacco still remains the biggest killer around the world,” says Medhurst. “85 percent of cancer is related to lung cancer.”

So why are people unhealthier in the north? Medhurst says there aren’t any conclusive studies. “I think it’s just that we’re not as health conscious. There is lots of evidence around that healthy eating is considered girly and urban. If you’re outside and working hard, you’re probably not going to want a salad for supper.”

Medhurst says a big focus right now is on the topic of men’s health. “We are doing a research program right now to see the effect of men’s healthy living campaign,” she says. “Health promotion is a younger field, especially in cancer prevention, but we are building on best practices. This is an evidence based program. There is research on power of the group and cultural change. That’s one of the reasons why we focus on policy change. In a remote community, we can talk about eating fruit and vegetables, but if there is no fruit in these communities, or if it is ten times more expensive, people are not going to chose to eat healthy.

“A brown banana next to a bag of potato chips isn’t a choice.”