It’s not all in the genes: How to reduce your risk of cancer

There are an estimated 1,638,910 new cases of the dreadful disease diagnosed in 2012 in the United States, not including non-melanoma skin cancers.

Cancer is not just one disease but is a term that represents more than 100 diseases with different causes. The basic unit of life is cells, and cancer always begins in cells. When the normal process of cell growth and division is altered, these abnormal cells divide without control and can form tumors and invade nearby tissue. It is a frightening diagnosis to even think about for most people.

Hundreds of studies link lifestyle and “daily habits” to the risk of developing cancer, and researchers at a recent meeting of the Union for International Cancer Control World Cancer Congress 2012 reported that more than 50% of cancer could be prevented if people simply implemented what is already known about cancer prevention.

Some of these are lifestyle changes and some are interventions and discoveries that have been proven to prevent certain cancers.

The #1 lifestyle factor for causing cancer is smoking. Tobacco use causes cancer of the lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix. Twenty-two percent of cancer deaths per year are caused by tobacco use, so stopping smoking brings the biggest benefit to both men and women. And the benefit starts as soon as you stop.

Other proven cancer preventions are:

Limiting fats in the diet and keeping body-mass index (BMI) in a normal range. BMI is calculated using your height and weight. A BMI between 18.5-24.9 is considered normal. Overweight is 25-29.9 and over 30 is obesity. This is another way of saying don’t get fat. Obesity increases the risk of prostate, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, stomach, ovary and cervical cancer. High fat diets are linked to colon, lung and postmenopausal breast cancer.

Implementing widespread infant and childhood immunization programs targeting two viruses. Human papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B. Hepatitis C does not yet have a vaccine but early detection and treatment can prevent liver cancer. HPV causes cervical cancer and chronic hepatitis can lead to liver cancer.

Taking tamoxifen and raloxifene, which in high breast cancer risk postmenopausal women, reduced the risk for invasive breast cancer by 50%. Additionally weight loss after menopause reduced breast cancer risk.

Daily intake of a low-dose aspirin reduced mortality from colon cancer by 40%. Aspirin also limits spread of cancer through its action on platelets. Screening for colorectal cancer also reduced mortality because small pre-cancer polyps can be removed before they become a problem.

Minimizing occupational exposure to asbestos, formaldehyde, arsenic and diesel and certain environmental chemicals like BPA that is found in reusable plastic food containers.

Limiting alcohol binging or over-drinking. Heavy drinking is responsible for 4.6% of cancer cases in men and is the sixth-biggest risk for women. More than three drinks a day is considered dangerous drinking. And yes, that includes beer and wine.

Avoiding excessive sun exposure and tanning salons. You only need 10-20 minutes of partial sun exposure during the high sun (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) time period to get enough Vitamin D a day. So the average person just walking around outside with sunscreen will get enough sun without even trying. If you have had a skin cancer, there are no safe levels after that. Everyone should protect with sunscreen and clothing during the high risk time.

None of these lifestyle changes or interventions will guarantee a cancer-free life if done independently of the others or erratically. But there is ample evidence that healthy living with a diet high in fruits, vegetables and fiber, no smoking, exercise and limited alcohol really does lower the risk of cancer and heart disease in all people. Other interventions like aspirin, immunizations, colorectal screening and hormone blockers are beneficial after a discussion with your doctor, taking into account your own risk factors.

The good news is that it’s not “all in the genes.”

Cancer risk can be lowered.

Toni Brayer is an internal medicine physician who blogs at EverythingHealth.

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  • Dorothygreen

    This is a good overview but nothing new at least from reading all WedMD, Medpage, Medscape for years now.
    What about sugar? What about the high intake of too much Omega 6 fats? What about refined wheat products? These seem now to be the greatest dangers in our diets for all chronic preventable diseases.

  • drjoekosterich

    Great piece.From the ENCODE program we now know that 80% of our DNA is “regulating” the 2% that codes our body. This regulation is influenced by how we live our lives. We are not at the mercy of our genes.

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