You can’t prevent cancer, can you?
It’s a common belief that if cancer doesn’t run in your family, it’s unlikely you’ll receive a cancer diagnosis. But this is a myth.
According to the National Cancer Institute, only 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers are hereditary. That means about 90 percent of cancers are caused by other factors.
A significant proportion of that 90 percent comes from habits you do or don’t do. In fact, the American Cancer Society says we cause more than 40 percent of these cases of cancer.
Several factors that increase the risk of cancer are out of our control:
- Age. The incidence of cancer rises as you age. About 52 percent of the cases are diagnosed in people between the ages of 55 and 74. Cancer in folks younger than age of 34 is relatively uncommon by comparison.
- Environment. You have to breathe, and you have no say over burning fossil fuels or other air pollutants.
- Race and gender. You can’t influence your race or your gender. For instance, African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with—and to die from—pancreatic cancer than folks of other races. Black men, for reasons still not fully understood, suffer the highest incidence of prostate cancer. Black women are more likely to contract aggressive and deadly forms of breast cancer.
Some factors, however, you can control, some behaviors you can change–meaning some tweaks can help prevent cancer. The problem is that too many of us see genetically modified foods, hormones in beef, stress and other myths and falsehoods as the major culprits behind cancer. But every two years the American Institute for Cancer Research publishes its Cancer Risk Awareness Survey, and the results show while 93 percent of respondents know tobacco increases cancer risk, less than 40 percent attributed cancer to alcohol, processed and red meats, diet, and inactivity.
Smoking. The largest controllable factor contributing to cancer is tobacco. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths, accounting for about 1,300 deaths every day in this country. Smokers don’t suffer alone; more than 41,000 deaths each year are the result of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Most of us know smoking is related to cancers of the lung, mouth and throat, but tobacco is an equal opportunity offender, affecting nearly every organ in the body. “This is one of the most potent ways of delivering a toxic substance,” said Christopher Lathan, who specializes in lung cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
This is no surprise, since tobacco smoke contains 250 harmful chemicals, at least 69 of which can cause cancer, according to the NCI. Switching to cigars, pipes, e-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco isn’t any safer. All tobacco use is linked to some form of cancer.
So why do people still smoke? It’s addictive, and nicotine is one of the hardest drugs to give up. Still, quitting is the best option. “The single best thing you can do is stop smoking,” Lathan said. “Over time the risk decreases.”
It may take more than 10 attempts to quit, so don’t be shy about seeking help. For assistance and advice on quitting smoking:
- Smokers’ Helpline: 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669)
- National Cancer Institute’s Smoking Quitline: 877-448-7848
- American Cancer Society’s Quit for Life: 800-227-2345
Obesity. The second most significant risk factor of cancer is obesity, according to the AICR. It accounts for nearly 7 percent of all cancer deaths. That is especially concerning since the prevalence of obesity in this country keeps growing, standing around 40 percent right now, and it is more common in black folks.
Fat might be thought of as just unwanted extra pounds, but actually it is linked to 13 different cancers. Why? Fat produces estrogen, which in excess can increase the risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, especially in post-menopausal women.
Alcohol. What’s the harm in having a glass of wine with dinner or a beer while watching the game? That depends on how many you have. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says limit alcoholic drinks to one drink a day for women and two for men. How much is a drink? It’s probably much less than you think: 12 ounces of beer; 5 ounces of wine; and 1.5 ounces, or a shot, of 80-proof liquor, such as scotch.
But a glass of wine holds 22 ounces, and a stein of beer 44 ounces. So your nightly glass of wine or beer with the fellas is actually four servings. It’s the amount of alcohol, not the type of alcoholic drink, that increases risk. Excessive alcohol, especially in tandem with smoking, is linked mostly to cancers of the head, neck and esophagus, but also can lead to cancers of the breast, colon and liver.
Diet and inactivity. About 5 percent of preventable causes of cancer are attributed to a sedentary lifestyle, especially for women, and poor diet. You don’t need to train for a marathon to reap cancer prevention benefits. Thirty minutes a day of moderate-intensity physical activity—think: walking—is enough. Marry that movement with a healthy diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and nuts, and you’ll make significant headway toward preventing cancer. Nutritionists suggest limiting red meat to 12 ounces a week, while avoiding processed meats, such as bacon and ham, almost entirely. Both are linked to colon cancer.
Infectious disease. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted virus. A CDC report found that almost half of all sexually active men and women in this country will contract the sexually transmitted infection at some point in their lives. Our immune systems kill most cases of it, but when HPV persists, it can result in cancer of the cervix, vagina, penis, throat and anus. Fortunately, the FDA-approved HPV vaccination can prevent most infections. Gardasil 9 has been approved for females and males between the ages of nine and 45.
Skin cancer. We tend to think skin cancer isn’t an issue for us, but research shows survival rates of melanoma, the more deadly form of skin cancer, are lower in black folks. That means everybody, including us, should use sunscreen, avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest, and wear protective clothing and sunglasses when outdoors. Year-’round, folks. And check unusual moles or changes in your skin annually.
Screenings. Detecting cancers in the early stage when treatment is more successful can be a simple as getting screened. Even better: Tests for cervical and colon cancer often find pre-cancerous changes in cells before they have the chance to transition into cancer, making this an easy method to prevent cancer.
All of these steps taken together can do a lot to help keep you cancer free. Even if you can change only one of these behaviors, you are on the right path. “Prevention decreases risk,” Lathan said.