8 ways to help prevent cancer

Cancer: it’s a scary word, and one we hear more often than we’d like. We’re constantly bombarded with new research and advice that can be conflicting or confusing.

What does recent research say about our risks? According to the latest statistics published by the Canadian Cancer Society, an estimated 177,800 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2011 — up more than 4000 cases from 2010 — and cancer claimed about 75,000 lives. Current predictions warn that almost 40 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men will develop cancer sometime during their lives — and 1 in 4 people are expected to die from cancer.

If the numbers sound bleak, the good news is that we can protect ourselves. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one-third of cancer cases are preventable — though some experts say this number could be as high as 40 per cent. Health experts agree that it’s our lifestyle choices that make a big difference.

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

Avoid tobacco

The link between smoking/second-hand smoke and lung cancer is well established, and experts report lung cancer is one of deadliest cancers for both men and women. Laws are already in place to help protect us — like the smoking bans which have become a regular fixture in restaurants, public buildings and parks.

Still not convinced? We know tobacco is hazardous to our lung health — it’s the cause of 80-90 per cent of lung cancer deaths —  but did you know it’s also a risk factor for cancers of the cervix, bladder, lip and kidney? Smoking isn’t the only bad habit more people should break — inhaling tobacco (“snuff”)  and chewing tobacco are linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach and pancreas.

Need some help to quit? Don’t go it alone — talk to your doctor

Watch what you eat

You’ve probably heard that certain foods can lower or raise your risk, but when it comes to planning your meals it’s overall dietary habits that matter. For instance:

– Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but also plant-based foods like whole grains, beans and other meat substitutes. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables lead to a lower risk for cancers of the colon, esophagus, lung and stomach. In general, only one quarter to one third of your dinner plate should be animal-based.

– Choose lower fat foods. High-fat foods, particularly those made from animal sources, shouldn’t be a staple.

– Drink alcohol in moderation. The more you drink, and the longer you’ve been a regular drinker, the higher your risk.

Curious about specific foods? See Foods that prevent cancer for some healthy choices.

Stay in shape

Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight go hand in hand when it comes to preventing many illnesses, not just cancer. The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 30 minutes or more of exercise per day most days of the week. Once you’ve achieved that level, any additional exercise will further decrease your risk.

The Centers for Disease Control also notes that adults should do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week that focus on major muscle groups. (Click here for their current recommendations.)

Use preventive measures

In addition to protecting against illness, vaccines can also reduce your risk of certain cancers. According to the WHO, infectious agents have been linked to 22 per cent of cancer deaths in developing countries and 6 per cent of deaths in industrialized ones.

For example, Hepatitis B and C, viral diseases that affect the liver, can also lead to an increased risk of liver cancer and both can be transmitted through needles and sexual contact. While Hepatitis A and B can be prevented with a vaccine, there currently isn’t one available for Hepatitis C.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine has been in the news a lot since its launch two years ago. Touted as a preventative measure against cervical cancer, many health experts advocate giving the vaccine to all girls between the ages of 9 – 26 (a decision that has sparked some controversy). While  cervical cancer gets most of the media attention, HPV also increases the risk of cancers of the anus, penis, throat, vulva and vagina.

However, if you’re thinking of this preventative measure, be aware that there are a couple of caveats: According to a news report on Reuters, Gardasil (the brand often used in North America) isn’t currently approved for women over the age of 26 (though it has been given to women of all ages), and don’t cover all strains of the virus. In addition, there currently isn’t a vaccine recommended for men, though recent studies are showing promise.

Instead, a more reliable means of preventing HPV infection is to avoid risky behaviours. Unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners and infected needles (or other objects that come into contact with blood and bodily fluids) can lead to the spread of certain illnesses which in turn increase the risk of cancer. For example HIV and AIDS are linked to an increased risk of anal, cervical and liver cancer as well as lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Using condoms, avoiding risky sexual behaviours and not sharing needles are still the recommended strategies to avoid these illnesses.

Practice safe sun

Sun exposure isn’t the only cause of skin cancer, but it’s the most common one and it’s easy to prevent. We’ve all heard the warning to protect our skin with a sunscreen that’s at least SPF 15, but there are other measures you can take, including:

– Stick to shady spots, or create your own with an umbrella or portable shelter.

– Minimize your time outdoors between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.

– Keep covered. Loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing will shield most of your body from the sun, and a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses also offer good protection for your eyes and face.

– Be warned that some medications can make you more sensitive to UV rays.

And in case you’re wondering, the official word on suntanning lamps or beds is don’t use them.

However, avoiding the sun altogether can be harmful in itself. If you’ve been following the latest news and debate about vitamin D, then you already know about the disease-fighting benefits of getting a little sun – but 15 or 20 minutes a day will do.

Get routine screenings

This step may not actually prevent cancer, but it will help catch the disease in its earliest – and most treatable – stages. Not sure what you need?

– Women should have regular pap smear tests (age and medical history will determine how often) and mammograms (every two years for women between the ages of 50 and 69). Men should have their prostates and testes checked regularly.

– Get your colon checked every two years once you reach the age of 50. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in Canada. The Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) is non-evasive and can be done at home.

– Check yourself. Watch your skin for any changes, particularly in moles. Women are still advised to do monthly breast self-exams.

– Know your hereditary risk. If you have a family history of cancer, you should talk to your doctor about the risk and start regular screenings sooner (some experts recommend getting screenings ten years before the age when your family member had the cancer).

On the whole, it’s important to know your body and keep an eye out for any changes. Symptoms like a cough that won’t go away, a sore that doesn’t heal or a change in bowel habits should prompt a visit to your doctor.

Avoid or limit exposure to chemicals

Despite the fact that research is often confusing and incomplete, health experts agree that we need to limit our exposure to chemicals. We take in toxins simply by breathing, eating, drinking and through skin contact. Chemicals can be found in our environment, workplace and homes.

In many cases, we have to rely on the government to act on our behalf to limit and regulate the use of certain chemicals, but there are things we can do:

– Avoid pesticide use.

– Hire a professional to remove or handle asbestos.

– Use eco-friendly cleaning products, and take precautions (like gloves, good ventilation and a mask) when using ones that aren’t so friendly. Skip the chemical air fresheners.

– Avoid using products that “off-gas” (like certain epoxy resins that release chemicals into the air long after their use).

– Check out what’s in your cosmetic products. Try the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database for the scoop on some of your favourite products.

– Read the labels for your foods. A good rule of thumb: less processing is better.

– Only use non-stick cookware at low/medium temperatures, otherwise it can release fumes. Broiling and baking in this type of cookware is also out of the question.

– Read the safety instructions. In other words, know how to safely handle and dispose of any toxic substances and products.

These are just a few of the things to watch out for. There is a lot more advice out there in books and online, but don’t be alarmed if you can’t find a consensus. Opinions often differ based on what research is available and how it’s interpreted. A good recent example of such controversy is the debate over bisphenol-A (BPA). Canada has labelled it toxic and is taking proactive measures, while in the US the FDA and environmental groups are still debating the issue.

Overall, there’s still a lot of research to be done and guidelines will continue to change to reflect new knowledge. These preventive steps aren’t a guarantee because other factors, such as family history and genetics, are also at work. The trick is to know what factors we can control, and take steps to reduce our risk even — if we don’t see immediate results.

Sources: MayoClinic.com, Canadian Cancer Statistics 2010, World Health Organization, Health Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Virginia Hamrick

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