Bal: Lifestyle changes can help people avoid most cancers

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about the new Kaua’i district health officer for the state Department of Health.

LIHU’E — Dr. Dileep G. Bal, new Kaua’i district health officer for the state Department of Health, is armed with the tools to help Kauaians change lifestyle choices that are putting many of them on the road to cancer.

It is a road that, with some doable detours, doesn’t have to lead to the dreaded “C” word that has touched the lives of virtually every Kauaian in some way, he said.

As the head of the cancer-control branch with the California Department of Health Services for many years, Bal led a cancer-surveillance program, through which every case of cancer in that state was recorded and registered. A similar program exists in Hawai’i.

“We had the best cancer registration in the United States,” Bal said. “All cases and deaths.”

With the information in hand, “we could see the trends,” and set up programs to attack problems, Bal said. “Up until 2004, the lung-cancer cases declined at about three times the national rate,” he said.

Bal also headed the early-detection program for breast and cervix cancer, which has won national prominence, and the cancer-research program, which focused on prevention and early detection of cancer.

Unfortunately, the research program ended three years ago, due to budget cutbacks, Bal said.

Bal likes to think he was both very lucky and successful in his 25 years with the cancer-control branch.

Although he played a key role in taking the department to new heights, he purposely down-plays his involvement.

“I was instrumental in bringing a lot of good people (to the program), giving them guidance and letting them work, and providing them with resources and technical direction,” Bal said.

On the issue of cancer, Bal said cancer risks can be lessened dramatically by regular exercise, moving to a diet that has less red meat and more fruits and vegetables, and cutting back or eliminating smoking.

“In the genesis of cancer, one third of the cancer cases is due to tobacco use, and another third is due to diet (a preference for fatty foods) and (lack of) exercising,” Bal said. “So two-thirds of the cancer are preventable.”

The risks of cardiovascular diseases also can be lessened through exercising, proper dieting, and less or no use of tobacco, Bal said.

“The occurrence of cancer, as well as the risk factors of cancer, relate inversely with education, income, social class, and being white,” he said.

Folks aware of the risks of cancer who take steps to prevent a visit by cancer are, in reality, those educated, with good incomes, and, mostly, white people, “unlike poorer people and people of color,” Bal said.

“Unlike communicable diseases, chronic diseases and cancer generally relate to lifestyles,” Bal said

Through his work, Bal said he wants all folks, regardless of income or skin color, to have the same chances at keeping cancer at bay.

“One of my major issues is the issue of social justice for poor people, and seeing what we can do to reduce the chronic disease risk and cancer risks,” Bal said.

The seed to strive for fairness in his life was planted in his youth.

His role models were his father, Gopal R. Bal, a lawyer, and his mother, Suniti, a social re-former who opened his eyes to the disparity between the poor and rich in his native India.

A common myth among people is that they think most cancers are from “something they breathe or something they drink,” he said.

“Most cancers come from what we do ourselves, in terms of tobacco use, weight control, diet and exercise,” Bal said.

Related to his work with cancer control, Bal is a clinical professor at the medical school of the University of California at Davis.

Bal also is active with the American Cancer Society at the local, state and national levels.

He is a member of the national board of directors and a national officer, honorable life member and past president of both the Sacramento unit and California division of the American Cancer Society.

He also was former national president of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Ga.

Here locally, he will work with staff and volunteers of the American Cancer Society unit, headed by Mary Williamson.

Bal is a frequent speaker on public health, medical and social issues, both nationally and internationally.

Bal also sits on the editorial board, or is an active reviewer, for peer-reviewed medical journals as well as for the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before he settled in California, Bal worked as an assistant professor at the Arizona College of Medicine in 1973.

From 1975 to 1981, he served as the director of the Pima County Health Department in Tucson, Ariz.

For a county with a population of 800,000 people at that time, Bal headed a department where the employees worked on issues related to communicable diseases, disease outbreaks, air-pollution and ground-water problems. Residents were always consulted on solutions, he said.

Those issues are similar to the ones he expects to encounter on Kaua’i, which has a population of only about 60,000 residents.

The issues he took on in Arizona helped prepare him for his current assignment, Bal said.

Bal, who is 60, said he fell in love with Kaua’i during a visit to the Hawaiian islands 20 years ago.

In January, 1992, he bought a house in Kapa’a, but Hurricane ‘Iniki struck eight months later, and Bal said he found himself commuting between “Sacramento and Kaua’i to sort out the damage.”

His love for the island, its natural beauty and lifestyle, runs deep. “In the last 15 years, I have been to the islands 30 times, and Kaua’i in particular,” he said.

He shares his home with his wife, Muktha. The couple has two children, Sarah, a senior at the University of California, Riverside, and Vijay, who graduated from Harvard College in 2005.

Bal was born in Madras City, in southern India, and moved to New Delhi later.

His medical degree is from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

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