Prevention Prescription: Tips for Cutting Your Cancer Risk
Theodore Brasky, PhD, gives an annual talk to all the first-year medical school students at The Ohio State University.
The topic is cancer epidemiology—the study of the distribution and causes of cancer—and includes a plain, but powerful, message: the fight against cancer begins before diagnosis.
“One of the most important ways to beat cancer is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” said Brasky, a research assistant professor and member of the nationally-recognized Cancer Control Program of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
It’s an important lesson—and not only for medical students. February is National Cancer Prevention Month, so let’s sit in on Brasky’s class and learn some important and life-prolonging lessons. No need to take notes—we’ll do it for you.
Brasky’s primary prevention tactic takes aim at one of the most well-known cancer-causing culprits: smoking.
“Smoking is responsible for one in five deaths in the United States. It causes lung cancer, but also cancers of the bladder, head and neck, as well as other sites; not to mention its relationship with other chronic diseases like COPD and heart disease.”
Those risks increase over time, but shouldn’t deter smokers from kicking the habit. “Quitting smoking at any time decreases one’s risk,” Brasky said. “Unfortunately, the risk remains higher, and it will never go back down to the level of a never-smoker, but it is a substantial drop.”
Rethinking Your Drinking
“Alcohol is a carcinogen, and high levels of drinking are related to several types of cancer, such as esophageal cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic and colon cancer, and breast cancer in women,” Brasky said.
The key, as is often said, could be moderation.
“[Drinking in moderation] can have heart-health benefits for some people, and heart health is a major component of overall physical health.”
Consider a Menu Makeover
A healthy diet is a great way to reduce your cancer risk, so Brasky recommends lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains and fiber. “[A healthy diet] should be low in meat overall, and red meat in particular,” he said. “Red meat and processed meats are associated with increased colorectal cancer risk, while fiber reduces cancer risk.”
Obesity increases the risk of several types of cancer, so along with a healthy diet, exercise can be a core part of a successful prevention plan. Fortunately, you have almost unlimited options when you’re motivated to get moving, with cardiovascular exercises— walking, running, swimming and many others—helping you burn calories through cancer-fighting fun. Brasky takes to two wheels to stay active, commuting to work by bike twice a week.
Stay Safe in the Sun (and Avoid Tanning Beds)
Too much exposure to the sun—and the harmful ultraviolet rays it emits—is a major cause of melanoma, a very serious type of skin cancer. So rub on the sunblock and reapply often.
“This is important for everyone, but especially for children,” Brasky said. “Severe burns at a young age greatly increase the risk of melanoma later in life.”
The use of tanning beds is another risk factor, according to Brasky. “They emit a large dose of UV—several times the level of the midday summer sun—and can lead to a two-fold increase in the risk for melanoma, with further increases in risk with repeated exposure.”
Watch Out for Workplace Risks
Some occupations come with higher cancer risks, often because of long-term exposure to carcinogens.
“It could be exposure to asbestos or a solvent that’s inhaled, or in an agricultural setting, exposure to certain pesticides,” said Brasky, who urged workers in these types of environments to wear protective clothing and masks.
“Another work issue is sitting at a desk all day,” Brasky said. “A sedentary lifestyle leads to several health issues.”
Vaccinate, Protect to Prevent Cancers
The human papillomaviruses (HPV) is the major cause of cervical, oral and anal cancers—Brasky strongly recommends that parents have their teenage children inoculated with the HPV vaccination—but it isn’t the only sexually-transmitted disease linked to cancer. Safe sex practices, combined with vaccination, may prevent STDs that can start alarming chain reactions inside the body.
“People who are positive for HIV, or who have certain forms of viral hepatitis, also [face] increased cancer risk,” he added. “HIV compromises the immune system, which makes someone more vulnerable to cancer, and hepatitis C is associated with liver cancer.”
Become a Family Health Historian
About 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are caused by inherited genetic mutations, but to get a good handle on your relatives’ risk, you’ll need to do a deep dive into your family’s health history.
“The term ‘family history’ can get complicated, as most, if not all, families have had someone with a cancer diagnosis,” Brasky said. Therefore, cancer in the family does not necessarily indicate an inherited genetic mutation, such as the BRCA breast-cancer gene or one of several genes related to the Lynch Syndrome gene, which causes colon and other types of cancer.
“What you want to look for is if your family has had several people diagnosed at an early age with cancer, and if there are an abnormal number of first-degree relatives with the same or similar types of cancer,” Brasky said.
If that’s the case, he recommends talking to a physician about your family’s health history and the possibility of genetic counseling services like those provided at The OSUCCC – James, home to one of the largest and best programs in the country.
Don’t Overthink It
It may seem like a lot, but cutting your cancer risk can be summed up simply: lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Eat well, exercise, limit alcohol and sunlight exposure, protect against STDs and stop—or better yet, never start—smoking. Finally, the doctor recommends the addition of a healthy dose of diligence to get the most out of his prevention prescription.
“You need to think about this all year,” Brasky said. “The goal is to live long and have a high-quality of life.