One way or another, cancer affects all of our lives – whether we’re affected by the illness ourselves or watching a friend or loved one go through the process of diagnosis and treatment.
Cancer screening and treatment have come a long way in the past few decades – there are genes you can screen for, and radical new procedures you can have if you’re unlucky enough to develop a particularly aggressive strain of cancer – but cancer prevention often falls by the wayside in medical discourse around the disease.
Preventative medicine isn’t quite as lucrative as diagnosis and treatment, but it does save lives, and it saves money in terms of medicare – countries with universal healthcare, like Canada, spend less per patient due to the accessibility of preventative healthcare than countries like the United States do(1).
Here’s what you need to know about preventing cancer.
The Role Our Genes Play
It’s true that being dealt an unlucky genetic hand can heavily influence your risk for developing certain kinds of cancer. Those with family histories of certain types of cancer are more at risk for developing the diseases themselves than those without.
Perhaps most famously, the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, which is can significantly increase your risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer(2).
Epigenetic changes also factor into your cancer risk, according to a number of recent studies. Changes in gene methylation alone can cause cancer in mouse models – and in humans as well. Most cancers feature abnormal gene methylation, and enzyme mutations that add methyl groups to DNA have been associated with several different types of cancer.
While some women who test positive for the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes opt for measures like preventative mastectomies, others choose to take their chances managing their risk with lifestyle factors such as diet.
While there’s no magic bullet that will guarantee you never get cancer, genetic factors aren’t the only ones in determining if, when and how you develop cancer.
“As of 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified 415 known or suspected carcinogens,” write the authors of one report.
“Cancer arises through an extremely complicated web of multiple causes, and we will likely never know the full range of agents or combination of agents… Although the overall age-related cancer incidence rates in the United States among both men and women have declined in the last decade, the rates of several types of cancers are on the rise, some of which are linked to environmental and occupational exposures.”(3)
The report goes on to state the significance of exposure to radiation, pollution, pesticides and insecticides, and specific types of heavy metals when it comes to the development of cancer.
“We argue for a new cancer prevention paradigm,” the authors conclude:
“One based on an understanding that cancer is caused by multiple interacting factors rather than a paradigm based on dubious attributable fractions. This new cancer prevention paradigm demands that we limit exposure to avoidable environmental and occupational carcinogens, in combination with additional important risk factors like diet and lifestyle.”
Diet And Lifestyle Factors
Finally, there’s the often touchy subject of the role that diet and exercise play in cancer prevention.
One report in the journal Public Health and Nutrition sums it up:
“Overweight/obesity increases the risk for cancer of the oesophagus (adenocardcinoma), colorectum, breast (postmenopausal), endometrium and kidney… Alcohol causes cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, oesophagus and liver, and a small increase in the risk of breast cancer… Fruits and vegetables probably reduce the risk for cancers of the oral cavity, oesophagus, stomach and colorectum… physical activity, the main determinant of energy expenditure, reduces the risk for colorectal cancer and probably reduces the risk for breast cancer; regular physical activity should be taken.”(4)
While nobody asks for cancer, factors like weight gain in adulthood and the consumption of certain unhealthy foods combined with a sedentary lifestyle can increase your risk.