Tips to Help You Lower Your Cancer Risk

You've heard the good news that cancer death rates have fallen over the past 16 years and the total number of deaths from cancer dropped in the U.S. for the second year in a row in 2004. But this doesn't mean you're not at risk. This year, the estimated numbers of new cases of cancer are about 767,000 in men and 678,000 in women. The estimated numbers of deaths from cancer this year are about 290,000 in men and 270,000 in women.

What can you do to lessen the likelihood that you will be one of the nearly 560,000 people who will be die of cancer in 2007 or of the untold millions who will die of it in future years?

Researchers have not pinpointed exactly the factors-environmental and genetic-most responsible for the vast majority of cancers. But here are a few actions you should keep in mind that are known to lower cancer risk:

Don't expose yourself to smoke, either your own or that of others. In addition to the direct risk of smoking, studies clearly show the cancer risk of secondhand smoke, which is becoming easier to avoid with the increasing bans on smoking in public places.

* Eat more fruits and vegetables. Available evidence indicates that people who eat more fruits and vegetables and less red meat have a lower risk of developing cancer.

* Control your weight. Data from the American Cancer Society have shown a strong association between obesity and cancer. The ongoing epidemic of obesity in this country may put an end to the decline in cancer rates in the future. So, eat right, don't smoke, and control your weight by cutting down on calories and by exercising regularly.

* Get regular screenings. You can also protect against bad outcomes from cancer by taking advantage of the screening tests available for early detection of cancer. A PSA test for prostate cancer and a mammography for breast cancer are accompanied by minimal discomfort. Colonoscopy scares away many people, but this test is crucial for identifying early forms of colorectal cancer or polyps that might later become cancerous.

Quite frankly, I had not followed my internist's admonitions to have a colonoscopy until I developed some of the warning signs of colon cancer. The colonoscopy procedure, now done under heavy sedation, was so painless that I was amazed to wake up and find that it had been completed. Of course, I was delighted and relieved when my gastroenterologist said he had found only a couple of small polyps, which turned out to be benign.

I then realized I could have avoided all those weeks of needless worry while I steeled myself to have the procedure done. Many others, I suspect, are less concerned about the discomfort of the procedure than they are afraid that they will learn they have colorectal cancer.

I agree with my doctor, who said that a person should be ashamed to die of colorectal cancer because he or she was afraid to undergo a colonoscopy. I must admit that taking the bowel-cleansing medications the day before the colonoscopy was far more unpleasant than the procedure itself.

As far as lung cancer screening goes, you might think that imaging techniques could easily detect the disease early on. Unfortunately, studies in the 1990s showed that chest x-rays were not an effective screening method for lung cancer. However, computed tomography (CT) scans of the lungs can detect much smaller lung lesions than can standard x-rays and so might become widely used to identify early lung cancers.

One recent study of CT involved people at high risk for lung cancer because they either were smokers or were exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke. Biopsies were then done on 535 of these subjects whose CT scans showed suspicious lesions; lung cancer was found in 484 of the biopsies. While these findings show hope for the future, it is obvious that about 10 percent of the people undergoing CT scans would face the unnecessary costs and discomfort of a lung biopsy.

For many types of cancer, the rise in the number of people who survive at least 5 years after a diagnosis is clear evidence for both the advantages of early detection and successful treatment. But for many other types of cancer, including cancers of the uterus, cervix, larynx, lung, and pancreas, the 5-year survival rate has not gotten any better over the past 25 years.



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