Information on Cancer Prevention

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People often think there's little they can do to prevent cancer. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, up to two thirds of all cancer cases could be prevented if people acted on everything known about cancer prevention. Committing to a healthier lifestyle will not guarantee you a cancer-free life, but it will reduce your risk. Here are eight steps to start you on your way:

  1. Make healthy food choices
  2. Keep physically active
  3. Stay tobacco free
  4. Maintain a healthy weight
  5. Protect yourself from the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  6. Follow screening guidelines
  7. Consider genetic counseling and testing
  8. Talk to your doctor about medicines that may prevent cancer
  9. Make healthy food choices

    You can reduce your risk of cancer by as much as 30 to 40 percent by making healthful food choices. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when planning meals, shopping, and eating out.

    Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Many of these foods are chock-full of cancer-fighting chemicals, among other benefits, and getting your five to nine servings may be easier than you thought. Just aim for one or two servings at every meal and snack—for example, a glass of orange juice along with fruit on cereal for breakfast, a salad that includes fresh, raw vegetables (with dressing on the side) for lunch, fruit for an afternoon snack, and whole-grain pasta with tomato and mushroom sauce for dinner. A serving equals one medium-sized fruit or one-half cup cooked, or one-cup leafy, vegetables.

    Eat a low-fat diet. High-fat diets are associated with colorectal, prostate, and endometrial cancers.

    Eat small portions of meat. Most studies suggest a link between a diet high in animal fat and higher rates of prostate cancer. When eating out or planning meals, choose lean fish and poultry or beans. When eating red meat (which generally is higher in fat than poultry) stick to a 3-ounce cooked portion, which is about the size of a deck of playing cards. And when cooking meat, fish, or poultry, bake, broil, or poach it rather than frying it.

    Eat two to three servings of dairy products for calcium every day. Calcium may protect against colorectal cancer. Skim or 1-percent milk or yogurt and calcium-fortified orange juice are good sources of calcium.

    If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Drinking has been linked to colon, breast, and liver cancers, and, when combined with smoking, an increased risk of head and neck cancer. Men should limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day, women to one drink a day. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

    If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Drinking has been linked to colon, breast, and liver cancers, and, when combined with smoking, an increased risk of head and neck cancer. Men should limit their intake to no more than two drinks a day, women to one drink a day. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

    Keep physically active

    Studies show that regular exercise may lower the risk of a host of cancers, including colon, breast, and prostate cancers. Exercise does not have to be strenuous. Indeed, you can get the benefit from just 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five or more days a week. For many people, looking for ways to work in activity during the day, rather than planning a formal exercise program, is the most effective way to achieve recommended levels of physical activity.

    Consider the following ways to increase your activity level:

    • Get on or off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way
    • Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator
    • When shopping, park the car in the far end of the parking lot
    • Go dancing
    • Work in the garden or mow your lawn
    • Stay tobacco free

      An estimated 45 million U.S. adults are smokers, and more than a third of all U.S. high school students smoke cigarettes. Yet tobacco use, particularly cigarette smoking, is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. The number of deaths per year from smoking exceeds the number of deaths per year from all accidents, suicides, drug use, homicides, and AIDS combined.

      Smoking is responsible for 87 percent of all lung cancer cases. If you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for more than 15 years, your chances of developing lung cancer are 1 in 5. Smoking also has been linked to cancer of the bladder, throat, pancreas, mouth, and cervix. Further, smokers also put the people around them at risk. Nonsmokers who live with smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer themselves.

      Chewing tobacco and snuff are not safe alternatives to cigarettes. They are just as addictive as cigarettes and can cause cancers of the mouth and throat at a young age.

      No matter how many years you've smoked, it is never too late to improve your health by kicking the tobacco habit. Consult a smoking cessation program or contact the Smoking Quitline of the National Cancer Institute at 1-877-4487848 or the national quit line at 1-800-7848669 or Smokefree.gov.

      Maintain a healthy weight

      Overweight adults are at a greater risk for colon, endometrial, breast (post-menopausal), esophageal, pancreatic, and kidney cancer. As one's body mass index increases, one's risk for other major health problems, such heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, and osteoarthritis, also increases.

      Choosing foods that are low in fat and calories is one key to maintaining a healthy weight. Keeping an eye on portion size also is key. Nowadays, many restaurants serve large portions, so share with a friend or save half of the meal for lunch the next day. And when making food choices, bear in mind that low-fat or fat-free doesn't always mean low in calories!

      How to know if you're overweight? Consult a Body Mass Index tool.

      Protect yourself from the sun

      More than 1 million Americans will be diagnosed this year with a cancer that is almost totally preventable—skin cancer. It is the most common cancer in the United States and, for the most part, caused by too much exposure to the sun. The fairer your skin, the higher your risk of skin cancer. If you freckle or burn in the sun, you are at highest risk. Still, people of all skin colors can develop skin cancer. Most skin cancers are highly curable, although one form, called malignant melanoma, is much more serious.

      • Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
      • If you must be in the sun, cover up with clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses.
      • Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before going into the sun so it has a chance to be absorbed by the skin. Reapply often, as swimming and perspiration will remove it. Don't try to economize—apply sunscreen liberally.
      • A sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 is a good choice for most people. SPF stands for sun protection factor and means that if you normally burn in 10 minutes while unprotected, you can stay in the sun 15 times longer, or 150 minutes, if you apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15.
      • Choose a sunscreen that protects you from both UV-A and UV-B rays. UV-B rays cause sunburns, but UV-A rays also increase the risk for skin cancer. Some research indicates that people who use only a UV-B sunscreen actually may be increasing their risk for skin cancer because they are soaking up hours of UV-A rays, unprotected.
      • Babies should never be exposed to direct sunlight. Shield them with protective clothing when out during the day. Sunscreens should not be applied to infants under 6 months of age.
      • Teach your children to apply sunscreen before they go out to play. Research shows that regular use of sunscreen during the first 18 years of life could reduce the lifetime incidence of skin cancer by 78 percent.
      • Don't substitute indoor tanning salons for roasting on the beach. Tanning beds produce the same UV-A radiation as the sun. No tan is a safe tan. Tans are a sign of skin damage.
      • Want to avoid the hassle and worry? Simply avoid prolonged sun exposure, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
      • Follow screening guidelines

        Cancer screening examinations are medical tests performed when you don't have any symptoms—when you're healthy. They help to ensure that cancers are identified at their earliest, most treatable, stages.

        Take time to discuss your own cancer risks with your healthcare provider, who can best advise you on the screening exams and risk-reduction strategies that are right for you. Your healthcare provider can let you know about the benefits, limitations, and potential harms of cancer screening so you can make an informed decision about testing.

        Breast cancer:


        All women should be familiar with their breasts so that they will notice any changes and report them to their doctor without delay.

        • Between the ages of 20 and 39: Clinical breast exam (an examination of your breasts by your doctor) every one to three years.
        • Age 40 and older: Yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams, continuing for as long as a woman is in good health.
        • Colorectal cancer:


          Beginning at age 50, men and women should follow one of the five examination schedules below. All positive tests should be followed up with colonoscopy.

          1. Colonoscopy every 10 years.
          2. Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)—both of which are take-home tests—annually.
          3. Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.
          4. Annual FOBT or FIT and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years. Having both of these tests generally is recommended over either test alone.
          5. Double-contrast barium enema every five years.
          6. Prostate cancer:


            Screening risks and benefits should be discussed with a healthcare provider.

            • For men at increased risk: Annual digital rectal exam (DRE) and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test beginning at age 45. African-American men and men with a family history of prostate cancer are at increased risk
            • For men at average risk: Annual DRE and PSA blood test beginning at age 50
            • Cervical cancer:

              • Beginning three years after initiating vaginal intercourse, but no later than age 21, liquid-based Pap test every two years
              • Beginning at age 30 and depending on risk factors, liquid-based Pap test and human papilloma virus (HPV) test every three years
              • Skin cancer:


                Promptly show your doctor any:

                • Suspicious skin area
                • Non-healing sore
                • Change in a mole or freckle.
                • Endometrial, Ovarian, and Lung cancer:


                  Benefits of screening for individuals at average risk for these cancers have not yet beenproven, and screening is therefore not recommended. For women with hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, annual endometrial biopsy is recommended beginning at age 35.

                  For women with a hereditary ovarian cancer syndrome, annual or semi-annual:

                  • Pelvic exam
                  • CA125 blood test
                  • Transvaginal ultrasound (on the advice of your doctor)
                  • Consider genetic counseling and testing

                    Increasingly, scientists are identifying altered genes that put people at high risk of developing certain cancers. It is estimated that 5 to 10 percent of all cancers may be hereditary. Researchers can now test people to see if they carry any of these altered genes. For example, testing is available for hereditary forms of breast and colon cancers.

                    People with a strong family history of cancer—two or more close relatives with breast, ovarian, or colon cancer—should consider genetic counseling. A counselor will explore with you issues related to testing, such as how your family might react or how results of a genetic test might affect your ability to get insurance. Based on your level of risk, a genetic counselor can also develop a risk management plan, which may include taking medications to reduce your risk (chemoprevention) or undergoing risk-reducing surgery, such as prophylactic mastectomy. Strategies for cancer screening and recommendations for a healthy lifestyle also will be reviewed.

                    To find a genetic counselor, call the National Society of Genetic Counselors at (610) 872-7608 or consult your doctor about counselors in your area.

                    Talk to your doctor about medicines that may prevent cancer

                    "Chemoprevention" involves using natural or laboratory-made substances, including drugs, vitamins, and hormones, in an effort to prevent cancer or keep it from coming back. According to the National Cancer Institute, hundreds of substances are being studied as possible chemopreventative agents. Some of the most promising are described below:

                    Breast cancer: Data reported in 1998 from the Breast Cancer Prevention Trial showed that healthy women at increased risk of breast cancer who took tamoxifen had 49 percent fewer diagnosed cases of breast cancer than healthy, at-risk women who did not take the drug. Women on tamoxifen also had fewer diagnoses of noninvasive lesions, including ductal and lobular carcinoma in situ.

                    Colon, Esophageal, and Bladder cancers: NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflamatory drugs), such as aspirin, piroxicam, celecoxib, and sulindac, are being studied alone and in combination with other agents to see if they are useful for people with a family history of colon polyps or cancer. In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of celecoxib to reduce the number of colorectal polyps in people with familial adenomatous polyposis, an inherited condition in which hundreds of polyps form in the colon and rectum. It is not yet known whether using celecoxib to reduce the number of polyps will also reduce the number of new colorectal cancer cases or deaths from the disease. Celecoxib also is being studied for people at risk of cancers of the esophagus and bladder. Other studies are looking at whether increasing calcium intake, through supplements or low-fat dairy products, lowers colon cancer risk. These studies are being conducted mainly in people previously diagnosed with colon polyps or cancer.

                    Lung cancer: The asthma drug Budesonide is being studied in clinical trials to see whether it can help keep precancerous lesions of the lung from progressing to cancer. The drug is being given as a spray so that it can reach the lung tissue directly.

                    Cervical, Lung, Oral, and Bladder cancers: Scientists are also studying synthetic and natural retinoids, compounds related to vitamin A, for the prevention of several types of cancer, including cancers of the cervix, lung, oral cavity, and bladder.

                    Last reviewed on 6/4/09

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