Geographic Information Systems and Science for Cancer Control

Why Spatial Context Matters

Spatial context is an important factor in health. It can influence the risk of getting a disease, the ability to adopt a healthy lifestyle, and the ease of access to medical services for disease diagnosis and treatment and for preventive care. Although many individual characteristics influence health, spatial context also affects a person's health outcomes.

There are three main ways in which spatial context plays an important role in health:

Environmental Exposure

Cancer and other diseases can be triggered by exposure to toxic agents, which varies geographically. These agents include chemicals in the air, water, and/or food supply. Naturally occurring radiation, such as ultraviolet light, and man-made radiation, such as that released from a nuclear accident, can cause cancer. Because many cancers develop over a long period of time, knowing the spatial context throughout a person's life is important to understand his or her total exposure.

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Built & Social Environment

Neighborhoods can have a strong influence on people's ability to adopt a healthy lifestyle, including their ability to get adequate exercise, eat healthy foods, and avoid the use of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.

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Access to Health Services

There are significant spatial differences in the availability of health services. Urban areas often have better access to health services than rural areas. Even within most urban environments, there are areas with few health professionals, hospitals, and clinics. Such shortages can reduce the likelihood of prompt disease diagnosis and proper disease treatment. Early detection and treatment of cancer helps reduce the number of deaths due to cancer.

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