According to data gathered by the American Cancer Society (ACS), more than 1.9 million new cancers are projected to be diagnosed in 2022. In addition, missed cancer screenings due to the pandemic are expected to potentially increase the number of cancers that are diagnosed at a more advanced stage. But the ACS data also highlight an important fact—approximately 42% of the new cancers projected to be diagnosed this year could potentially be avoided. A cancer risk management strategy and action plan can play a key role in helping you lower your risk.
The first step—assessing risk
Before starting to build a plan to manage cancer risk, it is essential to understand your personal risk. Start by gathering your family history, including cancer diagnoses for your grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and your children. The information you should focus on includes:
- Whether your relatives have been diagnosed with cancer
- What type of cancer they were diagnosed with
- Whether the cancer was a rare type
- Whether they were diagnosed with more than one type of cancer over their lifetime
- How old they were when they were diagnosed
- What their cause of death was if they’re no longer living
If you do discover a family history of cancer, you may want to consider genomic testing to help stratify risk. Suppose you have a genetic mutation that increases risk. In that case, your doctor may recommend meeting with a genetic counselor to develop a risk mitigation plan and starting common screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies at a younger age or screening more frequently. Medication or prophylactic surgery to lower the risk may be recommended for some types of cancer, such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer in people with a BRCA1 or 2 mutation.
Proactive steps to manage cancer risk
There are a number of proactive steps you can take to better manage your cancer risk, whether you’re at an increased risk or not. For example, the HPV vaccine protects against infections that can increase the risk of cervical, penile, and head and neck cancers.
Making healthy lifestyle choices can have a positive impact on cancer risk. The ACS data noted that lifestyle changes, including not smoking or quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, good nutrition, and not drinking alcohol were associated with 19% and 18% of potentially avoidable cancers, respectively.
Several studies support the value of healthy lifestyle choices as part of a plan to manage cancer risk:
Weight, activity, and cancer risk. For each increase of five points in BMI, one report found an association with the risk of developing several types of cancer, including a 50% increase in endometrial cancer risk, a 48% increase in esophageal cancer risk, a 30% increase in kidney and liver cancer risk, 12% increase in postmenopausal breast cancer risk, 10% increase in pancreatic cancer risk, and a 5% increase in colorectal cancer risk.
To reduce risk, work to reach and maintain a healthy weight by choosing nutritious foods and taking part in 150 minutes of activity each week. Two meta-analyses found an association between being physically active and a reduced risk of colon cancer (24% lower risk) and breast cancer (12% lower risk).
Nutrition. A number of studies have found an association between nutrition and cancer risk. In some cases, the risk is related to the fact that low nutrition, high-calorie foods like fast food and foods that contain a lot of sugar increase the risk of being overweight, which is associated with increased cancer risk. Red meat and processed meat have also been linked to increased cancer risk, especially the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Alcohol consumption has been associated with an increase in risk for several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colorectum, and breast, so limit or avoid drinking alcohol. In terms of nutrition, choose a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats, and lean proteins like poultry and fish.
UV protection. Both in the U.S. and around the world, the most common cancer is skin cancer. Fortunately, many of these cancers can be prevented. Key steps to take include using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher on all exposed skin every day, even when it’s overcast. Skin cancer can also affect the eyes, so wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays. Avoid all forms of indoor tanning, which exposes users to high levels of UV radiation over time and increases the risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and cancers of the eye.
Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.
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