Most of us know someone who has been touched by cancer. It might be a relative, friend or co-worker. It might be a celebrity or an acquaintance down the street. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America. It causes almost half a million deaths each year. The sad truth is that some of these cases didn't have to happen. There are many steps people can take to help prevent cancer.
Cancer is not one disease, but many. Cancer can strike almost anywhere in the body. Abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and can spread to other tissues and organs. There are many things in our genetic makeup, our environment and our lifestyle choices that may contribute to our risk for getting certain cancers.
Health experts have spent decades researching ways to prevent cancer deaths and keep other new cases from happening. Let's look at some of the things we have learned.
10 steps that may help prevent cancer
- Regular screenings. A screening is a medical test that checks your body for warning signs of a disease, even if you have no symptoms. Screenings can save lives by finding clues early enough to prevent the disease from getting worse.
Federal health guidelines recommend regular screening for cancers of the breast, cervix and colorectal area (colon and rectum). In some cases these screenings can actually find abnormalities that can be addressed before cancer develops.
For example, both the Pap and colon screening tests can help find both pre-cancer changes, as well as help find cancer at an early stage. A Pap test is a well-proven way to find pre-cancerous cells in the cervix before they turn into invasive cancer. Colon screenings can detect polyps, or growths, in the walls of the colon. These can be removed before they turn into cancer.
Studies have not proven that regular screenings for other cancers — such as skin, lung, prostate and ovarian cancers — reduce deaths from these diseases. However, your doctor may recommend such tests if you show symptoms or have risk factors for the disease.
- Avoiding tobacco smoke. If you are a smoker or you are around someone who smokes, your chances of getting several types of cancer are higher. In addition to lung cancer, smoking is also associated with cancer of the mouth, throat, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix and stomach. Smokers and people who breathe in secondhand smoke may make up as many as 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S.
- Genetic testing. The risk of getting some types of cancer can be inherited. This risk is passed along from one or both parents through genes, chromosomes or proteins. Genetic testing can reveal whether you carry certain abnormal genes that put you at risk of cancer. If a test shows you have a higher risk, you may be able to take steps to lower your risk or to find cancer earlier. Your doctor will determine whether you should be tested.
- Vaccines. Some viruses and infections have been linked to cancer. Scientists have developed vaccines to guard against a few of these. The hepatitis B vaccine helps prevent hepatitis B infections, which can cut the risk for developing liver cancer. The vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) helps protect against certain strains of HPV that are responsible for most cervical and some anal, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
- Sun and sunlamp exposure. Ultraviolet (UV) rays in natural sunlight and sunlamps used in indoor tanning booths can both cause skin cancer. Take steps to protect your skin while in direct sunlight, even on hazy days. This includes wearing clothing to cover your skin and a broad-brimmed hat to shade your head, face and neck. Avoid being in the sun during the hottest part of the day. Choose wrap-around sunglasses designed to block 100 percent of UV rays if possible. Always use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater.
- Other radiation exposure. Radon gas in homes is a known cancer-causing agent. You can get a test kit at a local hardware store, or call your county health department for more information on how to test your home for the presence of radon. Also, exposure to medical X-rays and other diagnostic tests that use radiation are known to raise cancer risks.
- Environmental factors. Working around certain elements, such as asbestos, could raise your chances of getting cancer. Air pollution and exposure to arsenic in water have also been linked to cancer. Ask your doctor if you're not sure about certain substances you are exposed to.
- Physical activity. Besides all the important health benefits of being active, research now shows that regular physical activity may help fight off some cancers. You should try to at least reach the federal guidelines of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two days a week of strength exercises.
- A healthy diet. Are you eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains each day? These plant-based foods are thought to have some protective qualities by providing fiber and nutrients. Some studies suggest a diet high in fat, processed meats and protein could raise the risk of colorectal cancer. Also, regularly drinking alcohol ups your risk factors for certain cancers. If you choose to drink, limit your consumption to one drink a day for women, two drinks a day for men.
- Your weight. Keeping at a healthy weight may help reduce your risk for certain cancers. It's all about calorie balance — eating only enough calories each day to meet your needs. To lose weight, you'll need to consume fewer calories than you burn.
These are just 10 key areas that are known to help people prevent cancer. Have you done all you can? If not, you might want to talk about these topics with your doctor and discuss how you can take steps to protect yourself.
Note: If you are physically inactive or have a health condition such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, pregnancy or other symptoms, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. He or she can tell you what types of activities are safe and suitable for you.
Mary Small contributed to this report.
Created on 12/13/2007
Updated on 08/23/2013
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Recommendations for adults.
- National Cancer Institute. Cancer prevention overview. Risk factors.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer prevention and control. Other ways to prevent cancer.