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APRIL 2003

Can Cancer be Prevented?
by Cynthia Stein, M.D., M.P.H.

Special to Education Update

Can cancer be prevented?

Yes. In fact, at the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention, we estimate that more than half of all cancers in the US could be prevented. Each year over 1 million people in this country are diagnosed with some form of cancer, but this number could be significantly reduced by basic lifestyle changes. There are some things, like age and family history, that we can’t control. However, there are steps that everyone can take to lower their risk of getting cancer:

Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the US. It causes about 30% of all the cancer in this country, including cancers of the lung, mouth, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, cervix, kidney, and bladder. Smoking also leads to many other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, lung infections, and pregnancy complications. Even the smoke from other people’s tobacco use (second-hand smoke) is harmful, increasing the risk of lung cancer and heart disease in nonsmokers. Children exposed to second-hand smoke are at higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, lung infections, and ear infections. The good news is that as soon as people quit smoking, their health starts to improve. Quitting smoking is the single best thing that smokers can do to improve their health.

Maintain a healthy weight.

Excess weight has been linked to a variety of cancers, including colon, breast, and uterine cancer, and many other chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Almost 65% of adults are overweight, and over 30% are considered obese. For reduction of cancer risk and other health benefits, we should balance the amount of calories consumed with regular physical activity.

Be physically active.

Physical activity not only helps achieve a healthy weight, it also lowers the risk of breast and colon cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes. It enhances mood, improves sleep, and helps people reduce stress. Activity doesn’t need to be strenuous to be beneficial. Moderate exercise, like brisk walking, offers health benefits. Physical activity is important for children since healthy patterns of behavior can be established at a young age, and exercise in childhood may affect disease risk later in life. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

Eat a healthy diet.

What we eat can have a significant impact on cancer risk. Eeating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has been linked to a lower risk of multiple cancers and heart disease. Eating less red meat helps limit the amount of unhealthy saturated fat in the diet and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. While eating a variety of healthy foods provides most of the vitamins our bodies need, taking a multivitamin with folate every day can offer extra protection against colon cancer, heart disease, and certain birth defects. Important in any healthy diet is total calories because excess calories from any source can lead to weight gain.

Limit alcohol.

Alcohol has different effects on different diseases. While it may help reduce the risk of heart disease, it also increases the risk of several cancers, including breast, colon, esophageal, and oral cancer. Alcohol use comes with risk of increasing blood pressure, weight, heart failure, addiction, suicide and accidents; therefore nondrinkers should not start drinking. Drinkers should limit alcohol intake to a moderate amount (1 drink/day for women, 2 drinks/day for men).

Protect your skin from the sun.

Sun exposure causes the majority of skin cancer. Some forms of skin cancer, like melanoma, can be fatal, and others, such as basal cell and squamous cell cancer, can be highly disfiguring. Since about 80% of lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18, sun protection is critical for children. Adults need to avoid excess sun to prevent additional skin damage and to provide good examples for their children. It is best to avoid extended periods in the sun between 10 am and 4 pm, use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, and wear protective hats and sunglasses.

Get regular screening tests.

While we don’t have screening tests for most cancers, we do have tests for colon, breast, prostate, and cervical cancer. Screening tests can work either detecting changes before they become cancer or finding cancer at an earlier and more treatable stage. Screening saves lives, but only if people get tested. Talk to your doctor about what tests are right for you.

Make healthy choices.

Of course, each individual is unique, and it is impossible to predict who will or won’t develop cancer. However, many healthy life choices offer multiple benefits, reducing the risk of a variety of cancers and other chronic diseases. For more information on strategies to prevent disease, visit www.yourcancerrisk.harvard.edu. Even small behavior changes can bring significant health benefits and improve the chances of living a long and healthy life.#

Dr. Cynthia Stein is Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention.




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