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The Essential Things You Must Do to Lower Cancer Risk

Lower Cancer Risk

Consider this: One-half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer in their lifetimes. That is a shocking statistic. Yes, there are some aspects of cancer that are outside of our control, but there are a few that we can fully embrace today in order to reduce our risk.

In case you didn’t know, cancer is a general name for a group of more than 100 diseases. The one thing they have in common is that they start because abnormal cells grow out of control. Cancer cells become cancerous because of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) damage. In a normal cell, DNA damage kills the cell or it can be repaired by normal body functions. In cancer cells, they instead go on making new abnormal cells with the damaged DNA. These cancer cells then invade other tissues, causing malfunction and disease.

People can inherit abnormal DNA (uncontrollable), but most damage is caused by outside influences, many that we can directly control. “Healthy choices and preventive screenings won’t totally erase cancer, but they can reduce our risk in a really meaningful way,” says Mark Varvares MD, director of the Saint Louis University Cancer Center.

Here are some “resolutions” to adopt today in order to reduce your overall cancer risk:

#1: Quit Smoking.
Smoking causes the vast majority of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. The silver lining of this well-established cause-and-effect is that it makes lung cancer one of the most preventable forms of cancer. The data is clear: stop smoking and you will reduce your lung cancer risk.

#2: Eat a healthy diet.
Obesity is a risk factor for many cancers, including esophagus, pancreas, colorectal, and breast cancers. Besides eating well to maintain a healthy weight, foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are linked to reduced cancer risk. Limiting red meats and processed meats can lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Many specific foods, like leafy green vegetables or blueberries, have been shown to have specific anti-cancer actions.

#3: Exercise.
Studies show that physical activity lowers risk of colon and breast cancer. There also appear to be links between exercise and reduced prostate, lung and endometrial cancer risks.

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#4 Limit Your Alcohol.
While some studies suggest potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, the evidence is clear that excessive alcohol intake is bad for your health, and, specifically, can raise certain types of cancer risk. For women, even a few drinks a week may increase breast cancer risk. Take a realistic look at your alcohol consumption and consider whether it falls within the recommended range: two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

#5: Wear Sunscreen and Avoid Tanning Beds.
As many as one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. Sunscreen, which blocks dangerous rays from the sun, is your best bet to avoid skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen every couple of hours if you’ll be outside. Avoid tanning beds altogether, as evidence suggests high incidence of skin cancer for users.

#6: Screen.
Though you may not look forward to them, preventive screenings offer some of medicine’s best methods for catching cancer before it becomes deadly. Colonoscopy, pap smears and mammography, for example, are some of the most powerful life-saving tools doctors have at their disposal.

Discuss with your physician which screening tests you should schedule, as well as when and how often they should be performed. Ask again at each visit, because guidelines change as new data constantly refines best recommendations. In addition, your doctor may recommend a different screening schedule than the general guidelines based on your personal history, your family history or other factors.

If you’re uneasy about screenings, talk to your doctor. He or she can ease worries about a colonoscopy, for example, by explaining more about the procedure.

#7 Vaccinate.
The HPV vaccine has a clear record of lowering cervical cancer rates in women, and is now being recommended for boys as well as girls because it shows promise in preventing head and neck cancer, too. The HPV vaccination is recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.

#8: Consider Genetic Counseling.
For those with a family history of certain cancers, information about our genes can offer choices in dealing with our genetic destiny. A woman who carries the BRCA breast cancer gene, for example, who has watched families members die at an early age may choose preventive mastectomy rather than risk extremely high odds of developing the same illness. For other cancers, such as colorectal cancer, the presence of a gene may signal the need for increased vigilance, with more frequent screenings to catch any abnormality early.

“Genetic counseling and testing can clarify your risk of cancer,” says genetic counselor Suzanne Mahon. If you under-estimate your risk, you might not have the information you need to make good decisions about prevention and early detection. If we prove you don't have the risk, it can be a big relief.”

St. Louis University Cancer Center
American Cancer Society