Understanding Cancer: Prevention

While February 4th was World Cancer Day, the entire month of February is honored as National Cancer Prevention Month. Cancer is an invasive and devastating disease that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or race. Fortunately, the American Cancer Society has reported that cancer rates have gradually dropped since the 1990s.

These studies indicate that between 1991 and 2016 there was a 27% decline in cancer death rate. Although this may be attributed to improved healthcare and technology, there is also an abundance of knowledge on cancer prevention. Cancer, unlike other diseases, can be the result of a combination of genetics, lifestyle decisions, current physical health, and external sources such as carcinogens.

Common Types of Cancer

There are four leading types of cancer: lung, breast, prostate, and colorectal. These types are dynamic and can be the culmination of a variety of influences. Even when family health history is evidence for a greater risk of developing cancer, an individual's role in prevention reduces the probability of receiving the same diagnosis. There is no guarantee of immunity; however, observing the preeminent and frequent causes for cancer can keep people on guard for prevention.

Nearly 90 percent of lung cancer cases can be credited to smoking, among other causes such as particle pollution. Other determinants attributed to lung cancer are genetics and exposure to certain carcinogens; however, illness from smoking is entirely preventable. Second-hand smoke is equally concerning. Tobacco smoke is dangerous, as it contains more than 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which are known to cause cancer. By quitting smoking and avoiding smokers, you can take the initiative in avoiding lung disease and damage.  

Breast cancer affects about every “1 in 8 U.S. women.” Its grasp on the U.S. population proves that it is a complex type of cancer, not provoked by one single factor. There are genetic causes, which cannot mitigate your likelihood of development: age, reproductive history, past radiation exposure, and family history. However, like lung cancer, you are able to control several factors that can contribute to cancer development.

Physical health is a large influence on cancer risk. Women who monitor their weight by eating balanced diets and staying active with moderate exercise are not as vulnerable to breast cancer. Mothers who choose to breastfeed and have a child before 30 have been shown to have a lesser chance of developing the disease. Hormone replacement therapy, contraceptives, alcohol, and smoking are also known to raise breast cancer odds.

As with breast cancer, genetics is a fundamental component of both prostate and colorectal cancer. Prevention does not eliminate cancer from happening, but it does alleviate cancer advancement. Prostate and colorectal cancer depend on lifestyle for preventative measures. The severity of smoking is not tied to just lung cancer, but it also affects colorectal cancer. Along with this, exercise and diet are vital to maintaining health.

Cancers Caused by Specific Carcinogens

Carcinogens, substances that are more likely to induce malignant tumor growth, are dependent on exposure. Not every carcinogen will cause cancer, but inhalation, indigestion, or direct contact are examples of exposure subjecting you to predisposition. Radon follows smoking as the second primary reason for lung cancer. “One out of every 15 homes in the U.S. is subject to radon exposure.” While this may seem unsettling, having your home checked for radon leaks, which are colorless, odorless gasses naturally emitted from soil, is necessary.

Two more recognized carcinogens include asbestos and ultraviolet radiation. Exposure to asbestos, a friable fiber, can result in mesothelioma cancer. Currently, there are heavy regulations around the use of this dangerous material; however, asbestos is more prevalent in our society than most people think. Basic prevention includes understanding where and when asbestos exposure can happen. DIY home renovations, working on classic cars, and talc exposure are just a few situations to be mindful of. If asbestos is inhaled or ingested, the microscopic strands have the ability to latch onto internal organs and develop into malignant tumors.

Electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun, tanning beds, and welding torches are considered ultraviolet (UV) radiation. There are three types of radiation (listed from lowest energy to greatest): UVA rays, UVB rays, and UVC rays. Though these radiation levels cannot penetrate past the skin, “[m]ost skin cancers are a result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight.” Skin cancer can be prevented by avoiding sunburns, protecting your skin with sunblock, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding the use of tanning beds.

Habits for Prevention

The World Health Organization estimates that “30-50% of all cancers are preventable.” They list tobacco use as the highest trigger for cancer development, with physical health, excessive alcohol intake, infection, and environmental pollutants as other key risks. “Prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer,” meaning that cancer diagnosis can potentially be traced back to a history of exposure and destructive habits.

Awareness of these determinants is not enough, especially if you have a family history of a cancer diagnosis. Cancer screenings can identify tumors early on, it’s important to make it a priority to have schedule routine doctor examinations. Studies show that 60% of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented with screening. When cancer is managed in the beginning stages, treatment yields more successful results.

Together, supporting a healthy lifestyle and completing physical checkups will provide optimal prevention for what you can control. With respect to National Cancer Prevention Month, ensuring your well-being is essential to limiting cancer risks. Though these cancers are widespread, prevention is imperative.