What We Know About Cancer Prevention
Reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Bonnet, MD, MPH
The impacts of cancer are far-reaching: In the United States, cancer is the second leading cause of death. In 2021, nearly 2 million new cancer cases were estimated to have occured.
Thankfully, the cancer death rate has fallen progressively between the years of 1991 and 2018, due largely to improvements in early detection and treatment, underscoring the importance of prevention and screening when it comes to getting optimal care.
What is cancer?
The term cancer refers to a large group of diseases characterized by the development and presence of cancer cells. Cancer cells are abnormal cells that can divide, multiply, and spread quickly and have the ability to destroy healthy and normal tissues in the body.
Cancer is caused by gene mutations that take place within cells. These mutations can cause a formerly healthy cell to grow and divide more rapidly and make mistakes when repairing DNA errors.
Gene mutations can be inherited, but most gene mutations take place after you’re born. These mutations can happen as a result of smoking, radiation, viruses, carcinogens (also known as cancer-causing chemicals), chronic inflammation, and other factors.
Though anyone can develop cancer, there are some things that can increase your risk:
- Age: Cancer is more common in older adults.
- Lifestyle: Habits like smoking, drinking, and getting excessive exposure to the sun can increase your risk of developing cancer.
- Family history: Though inherited conditions are only responsible for a small percentage of reported cancers, a family history of cancers can increase your risk of developing certain cancers. However, it’s important to note that having a family history of cancer does not definitively mean you will develop cancer.
- Certain health conditions: Some chronic conditions, like ulcerative colitis, can increase your risk of developing specific types of cancer.
- Environment: Exposure to secondhand smoke and some chemicals can increase your risk of developing cancer.
What are the different types of cancer?
There are many different types of cancer. Below is a list of the most common cancers in the US:
- Bladder Cancer
- Breast Cancer
- Cervical Cancer
- Colorectal (Colon) Cancer
- Head and Neck Cancers, including:
- Throat Cancer
- Brain Cancer
- Eye Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Liver Cancer
- Lung Cancer
- Lymphoma, cancer that starts in the lymphatic system, including:
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Mesothelioma (cancer that forms in the thin tissue that lines some internal organs)
- Myeloma (cancer of the plasma cells)
- Ovarian Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Skin Cancer (Basal Cell Cancer, Squamous Cell Cancer, Melanoma)
- Thyroid Cancer
- Uterine Cancer
- Vaginal and Vulvar Cancers
What are some common symptoms of having cancer?
Unfortunately, not all cancers cause the same symptoms. Symptoms of having cancer can vary depending on the individual, the type of cancer, and which part of the body is affected by cancer.
Still, there are some general symptoms associated with having cancer. These symptoms can include:
- Weight changes
- A lump that forms under the skin
- Skin changes
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent cough or trouble breathing
- Problems with sexual, bowel, or bladder function
- Indigestion or discomfort after eating
- Chronic and unexplained muscle or joint pain
- Persistent and unexplained fever or night sweats
- Unexplained bleeding or bruising
Are there screening tests I can have done?
Screening is an important preventive pressure that checks your body for cancer, often before you start to experience symptoms.
The recommendations for cancer screening vary depending on the type of cancer being screened for and other factors (age, sex, family history) of the individual being screened.
Here are some of the general recommendations for cancer screening:
- Breast Cancer: Mammograms help to detect breast cancer early. The US Preventive Task Force (USPSTF) recommends biennial mammograms for women between the ages of 50 and 74. Screening between the ages of 40-49 is an individual decision, though one you and your provider may decide to make depending on your family history of breast cancer.
- Cervical Cancer: A Pap test (also known as a Pap smear) looks for abnormal cells in the cervix that can turn into cancer. The USPSTF recommends women between the ages of 21 and 65 screen for cervical cancer every three years.
- Colorectal (Colon) Cancer: Colonoscopies screen for precancerous growths in the colon or rectum. Though timing recommendations vary, USPSTF recommends annual screening for adults between the ages of 50-75 (though screening can begin as early as age 45 depending on family history).
- Lung Cancer: The USPSTF recommends annual screening for lung cancer only in adults between the ages of 50 and 80 with a smoking history of smoking at least 20 packs a year or for those who have quit smoking within the past 15 years. Screening for lung cancer is generally done with the use of low-dose computed tomography (CT), a procedure that uses a computer connected to an x-ray machine and produces a low dose of radiation.
- Prostate Cancer: Unfortunately, there’s not enough data to make universal recommendations for prostate cancer. Instead, prostate cancer screening is based on an individualized discussion between a patient and their provider.
What can I do to prevent cancer?
Though not all cancers are avoidable, the WHO estimates that 30-50% of cancers are preventable. Decreasing our risk can largely be accomplished by adopting lifestyle medicine practices.
Based on decades of evidence, the American Institute for Cancer Research developed a set of "Top 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations" that included:
- Being a healthy weight
- Being physically active
- Eating a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans
- Limiting consumption of “fast foods” and other ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, starches, or sugars
- Limiting consumption of red and processed meat
- Limiting consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Not using supplements for cancer prevention
- Not smoking and avoiding other exposure to tobacco
- Avoiding excess sun
According to the CDC, here are some preventive measures you can take to help reduce your risk of cancer:
- Don’t smoke tobacco: Cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can significantly increase your risk of lung cancer. If you smoke, find the right resources to help you quit.
- Protect your skin: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. In addition to avoiding tanning beds, you can protect your skin by wearing sunscreen, seeking shade when possible, and wearing protective clothing and accessories (like sunglasses and sun hats) when outdoors.
- Don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol: Regular and excessive alcohol drinking can increase your risk of developing certain mouth and throat cancers.
- Maintain a lower body weight: According to research from the American Cancer Society, being overweight or obese is thought to be responsible for about 11% of cancers in women and 5% of cancers in men.
- Get tested for Hepatitis C: Hepatitis C is the most common type of viral hepatitis in the US. Over time, it can lead to liver cancer.
What should I do if specific cancers run in my family?
It’s important to talk to your provider about your personal medical history as well as your family history of cancer. Sharing this information can help you both to decide which preventive measures (including screening tests) are best for you.
When detected, early treatment is crucial to having the best outcomes possible.
If you’re unsure about where to start, Forfend can help. Our whole person wellness exams can help you optimize your approach to whole body wellness and health.