During the time of COVID, most of us felt our sense of control slipping. We were prevented from visiting friends or relatives, barred from restaurants and nightclubs, and chafed our skin with constant hand washing while confining our noses and mouths in uncomfortable masks. Yet as we slowly return to whatever now passes for normal, it’s important to remember how much control we really have over our health. For example, less than 10 percent of cancer cases are connected to an inherited condition. So, if you are wondering are any cancers preventable, the answer is actually a fairly long list. So what are they and what steps can you take?
At its core, cancer is a genetic disease. This is because when there are changes to the genes that control how our cells grow and divide, it can lead to cancer. This abnormal growth can form tumors. For women, this can mean breast cancer––at least one-quarter of one million women are diagnosed with the disease in the U.S each year. Across the world, it’s the most common cancer for women with some 1.7 million diagnoses each year. Yet overall, the mortality rate has been dropping thanks to early detection and prevention.
For men, after skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Yet again, early detection is intricately linked to survival with some 90% of such cases successfully treated. Equally treatable, testicular cancer affects younger males between the ages of 18 to 39.
For all the focus on the novel coronavirus, it’s worth noting that several viruses have been linked to cancer. Almost all cases of cervical cancer have been linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV). So have cases of vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancers. Throat and mouth cancers have also been connected to this virus. Around one out of four adults in the U.S. is currently infected with this virus, which is generally spread through sexual contact. Yet a vaccine given in childhood and early adolescence offers safe and effective prevention.
There is also a clear link between liver cancer and infection with either the Hepatitis B or C virus––which, combined, currently infect some five million people in the U.S. Across the globe, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates a far higher number––noting that one in three people have been infected. Although there is a vaccine for Hepatitis B, no such inoculation exists for Hepatitis C. Still, lifestyle changes can go a long way toward preventing infection––including not sharing needles, wearing condoms, and maintaining a monogamous relationship (or practicing abstinence).
Although it might not always seem like it, for most of us diet and exercise are within our control. Yes, it might involve sacrifice and developing routines. Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that eating a plant-based diet may reduce cancer risks by up to one-third. It also means lowered risk for numerous other diseases, especially late in life. Besides whole fruits and veggies, eat plenty of whole grains, and make water your beverage of choice. These changes can reduce your risk for breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers, among others. Moderate and consistent exercise has also been shown to reduce your risk. Just make sure you’re wearing sunscreen during outdoor, daytime fitness. That’s because regular wearing of sunscreen is the best way to prevent skin cancer––the most common form of the disease.
Alcohol and tobacco also increase your risk for contracting cancer. Although some studies suggest long-term benefits for those who don’t drink alcohol at all, other research, notably the Netherlands Cohort Study, suggests that moderate imbibers outlive teetotalers. Drinking red wine just for its purported health benefits is a bad idea, but moderate use may not impact your cancer risk.
However, even “social” smokers are at a greater risk for lung cancers along with mouth and throat cancers. All tobacco products increase your risks including chewing tobacco, pipes, and cigars. Although marijuana research is still ongoing, it’s unlikely that regularly inhaling any type of smoke into your lungs is healthy. Being exposed to radiation along with arsenic or asbestos can also increase your chances of developing lung cancer. So can elevated levels of arsenic in your drinking water––if your family relies on a well, have it checked for this carcinogen.
For much of the developed world, cancer rates are declining thanks to early detection and lifestyle changes. Of course, no cancer is 100% preventable. A growing percentage of nonsmokers have been diagnosed with lung cancer while there are always outliers––healthy, active adults diagnosed with cancer. Still, many of the things we do can make a difference. Realizing how much control we have over cancer can be liberating. It’s also a bit overwhelming. The secret is to adopt one healthy behavior today. Then one tomorrow. Eat some fruit. Walk around the neighborhood. Before you know it, you’ll have adopted habits that will last for a longer, healthier lifetime.
- The Genetics of Cancer
- Definition of tumor – NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms
- Preventable Cancers
- Breast cancer | World Cancer Research Fund International
- HPV & Cancer Prevention
- Think About the Link® – Prevent Cancer Foundation
- Update on global epidemiology of viral hepatitis and preventive strategies
- How plant-based food helps fight cancer – Mayo Clinic
- Alcohol consumption in later life and reaching longevity: the Netherlands Cohort Study | Age and Ageing | Oxford Academic
- Why Social Smoking is Still Smoking – Lung Health Article
- Global Cancer Statistics 2020: GLOBOCAN Estimates of Incidence and Mortality Worldwide for 36 Cancers in 185 Countries – Sung – 2021 – CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians – Wiley Online Library
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.