Take These Four Actions to Reduce Your Cancer Risk
Cancer is a complex set of diseases that researchers are studying to improve therapy and develop prevention strategies.
Although there is no single way to prevent cancer, oncologists agree that taking steps to mitigate risk is key. Experts at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) suggest starting with these four actions:
Maintain a healthy weight, eat healthfully and stay active
Prevention of many diseases, including cancer and heart disease, begins with establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A staggering 70 percent of people in the United States are considered overweight based on BMI, and 30 percent are considered obese. There is not yet enough data to definitively link weight loss to reduced cancer risk, but research suggests that chronic inflammation—a characteristic of excessive weight—is a significant risk factor.
“We all lead such busy lives that making healthy habits a daily priority can seem unattainable,” says Sagar Sardesai, MD, a breast medical oncologist at the OSUCCC – James. “The important thing is to start somewhere. Set goals that are attainable and meaningful to you. The only way a healthy lifestyle can be sustained is if it is realistic for a person’s actual life.”
In general, eating a balanced diet filled with plant-based foods, fiber and lean protein but low in saturated fats is a good way to start. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) offers guidelines for foods with cancer-prevention properties. The OSUCCC – James is researching the cancer-prevention aspects of certain foods, including soy, black raspberries, tomatoes and avocados.
If you qualify, get the HPV vaccine
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, incidence rates of human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated cancers have continued to rise, with approximately 39,000 HPV-associated cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. Although the HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer, vaccination rates remain low across the United States, with just 41.9 percent of girls and 28.1 percent of boys completing the recommended vaccine series. In Ohio, those rates are even lower, with 35 percent of girls and 23 percent of boys completing vaccination. Adults up to age 45 can also get this vaccine. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether the vaccine is right for you.
Talk to your doctor about cancer screenings appropriate for your risk factors
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has screening guidelines for breast, cervical and colon cancer. Colon and cervical cancer both have precancerous states that, if caught early, can be halted before cancer develops.
For people who are at higher risk for lung cancer due to a history of heavy smoking, a CT screening can flag early signs of malignancy. The screening is recommended for anyone of age 55 to 80 with a 30 pack/year smoking history and who currently smokes or has quit smoking within the past 15 years. Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer-related deaths among both men and women, and the disease often is diagnosed in an advanced, difficult-to-treat stage.
Individuals are also advised to be screened annually for skin cancer. The USPSTF recommends minimizing exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation for people of age 6 months to 24 years with fair skin types to reduce their risk of skin cancer. Sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more should be applied, regardless of age, when in the sun.
An estimated one in eight women will develop breast cancer, but Sardesai notes that changes in screening guidelines for this disease may have left women puzzled about the “right” time to begin screening mammograms: age 40 or age 50.
“There is no hard rule on when screening should begin, but rather women should discuss individualized breast cancer screening recommendations with their doctors. Several factors can contribute to increased risk, and these vary from one woman to the next,” he says, noting that a new study suggests women with dense breast tissue and/or a strong family history of cancer benefit from earlier screening compared with the general population. Risk-assessment models can be used in the clinic to help calculate a woman’s lifetime risk for breast cancer. To learn more about screening guidelines, visit uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org.
Avoid tobacco and alcohol
Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable cancer death; both first-hand and second-hand exposure can impact risk. The good news is that it is never too late to cease tobacco use and experience health benefits.
Tobacco products contain chemicals that damage DNA and promote development of many types of cancer, including lung, larynx (voicebox), mouth, esophageal, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreatic, colorectal and cervical cancers, as well as acute myeloid leukemia, a form of blood cancer. People who use smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) have higher risks of mouth, esophageal and pancreatic cancer.
Sardesai says that when it comes to alcohol consumption, studies increasingly suggest there is no safe level. Recent studies suggest that even mild consumption—defined as fewer than three glasses of wine per week—can increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer.