Opinion: As RNs We Must Strive to Help Improve Cancer Prevention


Nurses should educate patients not only about screening guidelines, but about important cancer risks to help improve cancer prevention.

Debi Fischer, MSW, BSN, BA, LCSW, RN

Debi Fischer, MSW, BSN, BA, LCSW, RN

In 2023, the theme for National Cancer Prevention Month, which takes place in February, is “Close the Care Gap.” As RNs and social workers, it is vital that we familiarize ourselves with information to address care gaps, such as screening and preventive measures, in order to inform and educate our patients. Living in the United States, having access to cutting edge resources, such as PET scans to look for suspected cancer and its’ possible spread is.a goal for all patients. As health care clinicians, we must be aware that there are open wounds in the health care system. In the words of one advocacy group, “A person’s social determinants of health–including their ethnicity, race, gender, age, sexuality, nationality, location, disability, income or immigration status–should not impact the quality of care they receive.”1

Facts and Figures

Despite advances in screening and being inundated with health promotion messages via social media and television, 1.7 million Americans receive a diagnosis of cancer annually.2 Even more startling is that 33% of the population will have cancer at some time in their life.2 The grim reality is that 600,000 Americans die from cancer annually.

However, there is a bright side for RNs and social workers, and other members of the cancer care team. Data show that there 18 million cancer survivors alive today.2

Suggested Screening Guidelines

The key take away message for National Cancer Prevention Month is that the average person should stay atop recommended screening guidelines. As RNs and social workers in the field, we can help provide these screening guidelines to our patients.

Almost every cancer type has a recommended screening test that nurses should be aware of. The recommendations for some of the most common cancer types are as follows:

  1. Individuals should be screened for lung cancer if they are a current or former smoker or have stopped smoking within the last 15 years. In addition, screening is recommended for those who have smoked longer than 20 years and who are between the ages of 50 and 80 years.2
  2. For women between the ages of 40 and 75 years, a mammogram is recommended at least every 1 to 2 years to detect early signs of breast cancer.
  3. The age for colon cancer screening has now dropped to age 45 years.2 The age range now goes to 75 years.
  4. Women should get screened for cervical cancer via a Papanicolaou test between the ages of 21 and 65 years every 2 to 3 years.2

Moreover, it is important for patients to know that melanoma risk increases with ultraviolet ray exposure.2 This can happen naturally in the sunlight or at a tanning salon. The use of sunscreen with adequate SPF protection is encouraged.

Being obese is also a risk factor and it can increase the risk of 13 different kinds of cancer. Women who are obese are at risk of developing breast and uterine cancer, and both men and women are at a higher risk of colon cancer if obese. Diet and exercise can be useful in preventing weight gain and reducing this risk.2,3

Smoking cessation is recommended to avoid lung cancer. Secondhand smoke is a significant lung cancer risk factor.

The amount of alcohol we consume can also be a risk factor. Too much alcohol use has been linked to breast cancer. In addition, cancers of the liver, colon, rectum, mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus have been tied to excess alcohol use.2,3 Binge drinking, which is defined as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women, should be avoided in order to avoid the risk of these cancers.

Our Message

Screening is not enough. The RN and clinical social worker can also educate the patient that choices we make in our day-to-day life can impact our cancer risk. Working in oncology also has to be our cue to educate the public and we are in the prime position to fulfil this role.


  1. Addressing barriers to care this national cancer prevention month and world cancer day. CancerCare. February 1, 2023. Accessed February 15, 2023.https://www.cancercare.org/blog/
  2. February is national cancer prevention month. Community Health of Central Washington. February 15, 2023. Accessed February 21, 2023. https://www.chcw.org/february-is-national-cancer-prevention-month/
  3. Cancer. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. June 7, 2022. Accessed February 15, 2023
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