How a Healthy Life Can Help Prevent Cancer
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Cancer prevention is tricky. The science is still evolving and each day studies are published, verified or challenged by the medical community. However, if you’re concerned about cancer and want some way to prevent it and maybe take a more proactive approach, here are a few lifestyle changes that can make a difference:
1. Lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
According to Cancer Research UK, the link between obesity and cancer is well established.
In the 2001 study conducted by Swedish researchers on 28,129 hospital patients with obesity diagnosis, they cited a few mechanisms that may explain the association between obesity and the risk of various cancers. Firstly, those that may result from “increased cell proliferation” and secondly, researchers noted that “obesity is associated with insulin resistance, compensatory hyperinsulinemia and increased growth factor production, which in turn may stimulate mitogenesis and carcinogenesis”. Excess weight can also affect certain hormones like estrogen which can lead to the proliferation of hormone-dependent cancers like breast and endometrial cancer.
The pioneering study concluded that obesity was associated to more forms of cancer than what the medical community initially thought. They observed elevated risks for cancers of the small intestine, colon, gallbladder, pancreas, larynx, renal parenchyma, bladder, cervix uteri, endometrium, ovary, brain, and connective tissue.
The data is limited on how weight loss contributes to reduced risks but there’s growing evidence that it does make a difference. According to cancer.org, weight loss can reduce the risk of breast cancer after menopause, aggressive forms of prostate cancer and even other cancers.
2. Don’t smoke or stop smoking.
Tobacco and tobacco smoke contains chemicals that are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). These include Hydrogen cyanide, Nitrosamines, Lead, Arsenic, Benzene, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and much more. Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer but also increases your risks for other cancers like cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, pancreas, bladder, cervix, and kidney.
Stop smoking and minimize your exposure to second-hand smoke. According to the 2010 US Surgeon General's Report, your “risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder is cut in half after 5 years” of quitting.
Unfortunately, you can never fully erase the damage done from years of smoking or even constant exposure to second-hand smoke (or even third-hand smoke) so keep close watch of symptoms such as weight loss, coughing, frequent respiratory infections, trouble breathing, trouble swallowing, unusual fatigue, sores or white patches in the mouth, and other suspect symptoms. Visit your doctor to get checked and screened regularly.
3. Protect yourself from sun exposure and refrain from using tanning beds.
Australian actor Hugh Jackman made news in 2017 when he was diagnosed with skin cancer for the sixth time. The actor was diagnosed with one of the most common and thankfully more curable forms of skin cancer, Basal Cell Carcinoma.
But one type of skin cancer kills more people year in and out. According to skincancer.org, it is estimated that one person dies from Melanoma every 54 minutes and over the past 3 decades, more people have been diagnosed with skin cancer than all the cancers combined.
Statistics show that the majority of people diagnosed with Melanoma are Caucasian males over 55 years old. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.
Melanomas in African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Indonesian-Americans, and native Hawaiians often occur in non-exposed skin with less pigmentation like the soles, between the toes, the nail bed as a black or dark brown nail discoloration, palms, and mucous membranes.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer among African-Americans and Indian-Americans and in African-Americans this type of cancer tends to be more aggressive with higher occurrence of spreading to other organs.
Tanning beds are also a culprit as much as constant sun exposure. In fact, indoor tanning is now illegal in many countries and even the FDA has raised the risk classification for tanning beds from low to moderate.
If you want that healthy tan and glow, opt for a tan-in-a-bottle instead. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 and up depending on how long you are exposed to the sun and do not forget to reapply as specified in the label.
It’s a great idea to conduct a monthly self examination of your skin and visit your dermatologist for regular checkups. If you notice a mole with irregular borders, having many colors and is changing size or if you notice a black or dark brown band on your nail that is not a result of injury or even a raised lump in your skin with blood vessels growing – go to your doctor immediately to have it checked. Early detection, even in its precancerous stages, is key to higher survival rate.
4. Adapt a healthy diet rich in whole and unprocessed foods.
In 2015, the World Health Organization through the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meats as carcinogens. That means hot dogs, hams, bacon, sausages, and canned meats – basically any meat that has undergone curing, smoking, fermenting, and preserving processes.
According to Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, managing director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society, "We should be limiting red and processed meat to help reduce colon cancer risk, and possibly, the risk of other cancers. The occasional hot dog or hamburger is okay".
They recommend limiting red meat (eating more fish or poultry instead) and eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans rich with antioxidants, vitamins and essential nutrients.
5. Limit your alcohol intake.
Alcohol may increase your risks for cancers in the mouth, pharynx and esophagus. A 2011 study conducted on eight European countries found that “one in ten of all cancers in men and one in thirty-three in women were caused by past or current alcohol intake”. A glass of wine is great every now and then, but if you find yourself toasting happy hour more and more, you need a wakeup call to curb your drinking.
6. Exercise more.
A recent study from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute found that exercise lowers the risk for 13 types of cancers like colon, breast, endometrial cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, kidney cancer, and myeloid leukemia.
7. Be proactive. You are your best advocate.
If you notice something strange, if you are feeling fatigue or unexplained pain – get yourself checked by your doctor. Take the time to learn the tests and screenings based on your age.
Women ages 21 to 39 should to be screened for breast cancer (monthly self examination and regular doctor examination), cervical cancer (PAP Smear and HPV testing even if you are vaccinated) and colon cancer (testing if there is family history). Men ages 21 to 39 should be screened for colon cancer especially if they have a family history of it.
At age 40 and above women need to be screened for breast cancer (yearly mammograms for ages 45 and above), cervical cancer (PAP Smear and HPV testing) and colon cancer (colonoscopy if requested by physician or if with family history). Men ages 40 and above should be getting colon cancer screenings and prostate exams. Your doctor may require low-dose CT scans if you have a history of smoking. If you’ve had a form of skin cancer in the past, additional follow up is important in the event of recurrence.