February is National Cancer Prevention Awareness Month- which is a time where many come together to spread awareness and information on ways to take care of your health and prevent cancer.
The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) states that research shows that more than 40% of diagnosed cancers are attributed to preventable causes. However, one must keep in mind there are often many cancer-causing factors (such as genetics, environment, or inadequate access to medical care). Thus, we cannot stop/prevent all cancers from occurring. However, by staying mindful of your health- you can certainly lower your chances of getting cancer.
What Do We Mean by Cancer Prevention?
When we talk about prevention, we are not referring to the general definition. Many dictionaries define prevention as: “the act of stopping something from happening or of stopping someone from doing something” (Cambridge Dictionary). However, each individual varies on how much risk they face in developing certain cancers. At this moment, we can’t eliminate all risks- or stop all cancers from occurring.
However, in medical terms, preventive intervention is defined as: “Therapeutic, nutritional, environmental, social and/or behavioral interventions at the societal, community, organizational or individual levels to reduce, modify or stop the course of a disease” (NCI thesaurus). From a medical perspective, prevention intervention is not only concerned with stopping the disease. It also focuses on the ways interventions can help reduce the risks and outcomes of diseases.
So when talking about cancer prevention and ways to reduce risks, we are not guaranteeing that such actions will 100% stop all cancers from developing in every individual. Instead, we are talking about steps you can take to help lower your chances of some sort of cancer developing later in the future (and lead to an overall healthier lifestyle as well).
Why Can’t All Cancer’s Be Prevented? And What Are the Dangers of Victim Blaming?
As discussed above, the AACR states how a little more than 40% of diagnosed cancers can be prevented by following guidelines on cancer prevention. However, there are so many factors that play into the risks of someone developing cancer:
- Everyone’s family history is different when it comes to cancer. Some people may have an increased chance, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will develop cancer later in life. While others may not have a family history but they can still get cancer in the future.
- The environment people are born in can also affect everyone’s risks differently. Factors such as access to medical care and exposure to hazardous living/working conditions can also lead to people varying in their cancer risk. Even then, some people may be more susceptible to risks than others.
- Others may have been exposed to risk factors early in life, and one can’t go back and undo the risks.
- While scientists and medical research have led to lots of knowledge, there is still much to learn about factors that may influence the risks or development of cancer.
The overall point is that not everyone starts at the same level. Thus, there can’t be an “apply to all” prevention action taken. On top of that, every kind of cancer and risk factor is different. Some cancers may develop spontaneously from cell damage. Some people may be more susceptible.
Also, one must never blame a person. For example, just because someone has developed lung cancer does not mean that it was caused by cigarette smoking or tobacco use. And it is not 100% certain that someone who smokes would not have developed cancer if they didn’t smoke (because other factors may also contribute to their increased risk). Therefore, one must be mindful that everyone’s circumstances vary and that everyone lives their lives differently. Trying to pinpoint the blame on one specific factor helps no one. Instead, we should focus on using these recommendations to improve our health rather than find reasons to blame others (or ourselves).
What Are Some Cancer Risk Factors?
Certain factors are known to increase the risk of cancers (as proven by various studies). These include:
- Cigarette smoking and tobacco use
- Older age
- Having a family history of cancer
- Specific types of viral infections (such as HIV)
- Exposure to radiation
- Immunosuppressive medicines
Some factors may affect your risk of developing cancer (which means that they are currently under investigation). These include:
- Poor diet
- Lack of physical activity
What Are Some Actions You Can Take To Help Reduce Your Risk?
Certain factors are known to increase your risk of developing specific cancers (as proven by various studies). These include:
Avoiding Cigarette Smoking and Tobacco Products
- Research has shown that smoking tobacco can increase the risk of developing 17 types of cancer (in addition to lung cancer).
- Meanwhile, chewing tobacco is linked to cancer in the oral cavity and pancreas.
- Also, limit your exposure to secondhand smoke because it might increase your risk of developing lung cancer.
- It is never too late to quit. Quitting at any age can reduce the risk of cancer and any other adverse health effects on your health.
- Be aware that this does not only refer to tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco/snuff, hookas/water-pipes are also linked to adverse health outcomes such as cancer.
Maintain a Healthy Weight, Eat a Healthy Diet, and Stay Active
The AACR states that 15 types of cancer can be causally linked to obesity or being overweight. Thus, it is recommended for you to:
- Limit your consumption of fast foods.
- Limit intake of red and processed meats.
- Limit your intake of alcohol- it can increase your risk of six different types of cancer.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
- Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.
- Maintain a healthy weight (this looks different for each individual).
- Look to incorporate regular physical activity into your life. Try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity. It is recommended that individuals accomplish at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity.
Protecting Yourself from the Sun and Limiting Unprotected UV Exposure
- Try to stay out of the midday sun (from 10 am to 4 pm) because this is when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- Try to stay in the shade when outdoors. If outside, try to wear sunglasses and broad-rimmed hats.
- Cover exposed areas with loose clothing.
- Wear sunscreen (even if it is cloudy).
- Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps (they can be just as damaging as natural sunlight).
- About 5-10% of cancers are inherited.
- Being aware of any family history with cancer can help you stay aware and let your doctor know if any actions may need to be taken (such as frequent cancer screening or genetic counseling).
- Regular screenings (and even self-exams) can help detect cancer early.
- They can maximize the chances of your treatment being successful.
Prevent and Eliminate Infection with Cancer-Causing Pathogens
- Persistent infection with different pathogens (such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause disease) can increase someone’s risk of developing several types of cancer.
- Hepatitis B is known to increase the risk of developing liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for adults at high risk.
- HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical, throat, tongue, anal, and other genital cancers (as well as squamous cell cancers of the head and neck). The HPV vaccine (1st dose) is recommended for girls and boys ages 11-12. Anyone from age 9-26 can get an HPV vaccine.
- It is also important that you take caution and avoid engaging in risky behaviors. Practice safe sex by limiting your amount of sexual partners and wearing a condom/dam when having sex. Engaging in unprotected/unsafe sex can increase your chances of contracting HIV or HPV (which are known to increase the risk of developing cancer). Also, don’t share needles because it can increase your chances of contracting HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Limit Exposure to Environmental Carcinogens
- Environmental exposure to pollutants and specific occupational agents can increase a person’s risk of cancer. Environmental carcinogens (such as radon, arsenic, asbestos, lead, radiation, and benzene) are linked to cancer.
- The intensity/duration of exposure, a person’s genetic makeup, and lifestyle can determine someone’s chance of developing cancer in their lifetime.
- Research has also shown that outdoor air pollution is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a potential causeof cancer in humans. In the US, ozone and particle pollution are the most common in the US.
- Of course, it is difficult for many people to avoid or reduce their exposure to environmental carcinogens or pollutants. Specific groups (such as workers in certain industries, racial/ethnic minorities, or low-income neighborhoods) are prone to higher levels of involuntary exposure to environmental pollutants. However, in understanding this research, we hope that everyone can make environmentally friendly choices to help reduce these risks for everyone.
While these prevention recommendations do not eliminate the risk, engaging in these lifestyle choices can greatly lower your chances and lead to overall better health. You also don’t need to follow each recommendation perfectly. Achieving these steps to the best of your ability is enough to help lower your risk.