To most people cancer is a scary and ugly word. We all know of someone young or old who in our own personal realm has been affected by or even died from cancer. So what specifically we do to decrease our own personal risk of developing cancer? I am a firm believer in the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although we may not be able to totally prevent the ravages of cancer, there are a few caveats that may help.

From a numerical standpoint, skin cancer is far and away the most common cancer among both men and women, with over 600,000 cases per year in the US alone. The most common type is called Basal Cell Carcinoma and, as far as cancer goes, it’s relatively indolent, in that it rarely spreads to other parts of the body. Despite this, it does kill a large number of people because it can be very locally aggressive and difficult to totally excise. The prevention lies in the wearing of proper clothing and sunscreen in protecting against ultraviolet light. Each “sunburn” you get very significantly increases the odds of you getting skin cancer. A little sunshine in the form of Vitamin D is a good thing, but too much all at once in the form of a sunburn just is inviting skin cancer down the road.

cancer screening womenEven though there are more cases of breast cancer, the number one cancer killer among women is actually lung cancer. The good news with lung cancer is that it is almost totally preventable. The truth is that 92 percent of all lung cancer cases are associated directly to cigarette smoking. Even if you don’t smoke yourself, second hand smoke has been shown to cause lung cancer to those exposed to it. I had an uncle who never smoked, but was exposed for many years to second hand smoke in an office environment, and he was among the 8 percent of lung cancer patients who are non-smokers. It has been demonstrated that the average age of people who smoke started to smoke at the tender age of 14! Yes, 14! The number one factor in beginning to smoke is parents who smoke. If you smoke, NOW is the time to stop. It will not only greatly benefit your own health, but positively influence your family for generations to come.

Breast cancer on the other hand is much less preventable. Perhaps the biggest risk of breast cancer is due to your genes and your age, both of which are beyond your control. One very important reason to see your gynecologist on a regular basis is to have not only a yearly clinical breast exam, but to also discuss with him or her your own risk of developing breast cancer based upon your family history. If you have at least one first degree relative or two second degree relatives who have had breast cancer, you should discuss with your doctor being tested for BrCa1 or BrCa2 genes. This is a simple blood test that can help determine your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and help guide your frequency of clinical breast evaluations, mammograms, and even MRIs. Age and even being overweight have been shown to increase the odds of getting breast cancer as well. What can you do to decrease your likelihood of getting breast cancer? The first is to maintain a healthy weight through proper diet and exercise. Another thing is to breastfeed your children. Studies have shown that for each child a woman nurses for at least 6 months, her risk of breast cancer decreases by a whopping 7 percent. The more children you breast feed, the less likely you are to eventually develop breast cancer! Nursing is truly the best thing you can do for both your baby and yourself!

Up until about the 1960’s, cervical cancer was actually the number one cancer killer in women, but thanks to a Greek physician named “Papanicolaou,” cervical cancer is now number seven on the list. Pap smears can detect cervical dysplasia, which is the early stages of cancer, and therefore catch it when it is still highly treatable. Just as lung cancer is associated with smoking, cervical cancer is highly associated with the number of sexual partners a woman has. In fact, 93 percent of cervical cancer cases have been tied to a sexually transmitted infection of HPV or Human papillomavirus. Therefore, the earlier a girl starts to have intercourse, and the higher number of sexual partners she has, the more likely she is to eventually get cervical cancer. Prevention lies in limiting your number of partners, and getting regular pap smears. One other point I’d like to mention is that smoking has been highly associated with increased risk of developing cervical cancer as well.

Cancer Prevention Essentials

1. Stop smoking and avoid second hand smoke.
2. Maintain a healthy weight with proper diet and exercise.
3. Breastfeed your children and have a large family.
4. Obtain regular mammograms, pap smears, and colonoscopies.
5. Have annual exams and discuss any unusual symptoms with your doctor.
6. Be Happy! Yes, multiple studies have demonstrated an association with happiness and longevity!

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This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Healthy Utah Magazine.