About one of every three Americans will develop some form of malignancy during his or her lifetime. This year alone, about 1,437,000 new cases will be diagnosed, and more than 565,000 people will die of the disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America, and as deaths from heart disease decline, it's poised to assume the dubious distinction of becoming our leading killer.
You don't have to be an international scientist to understand how you can try to protect yourself and your family.
1. Avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation. Get medical imaging studies only when you need them. Check your home for residential radon, which increases the risk of lung cancer. Protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, which increases the risk of melanomas and other skin cancers. But don't worry about electromagnetic radiation from high-voltage power lines or radiofrequency radiation from microwaves and cell phones. They do not cause cancer.
2. Avoid tobacco in all its forms, including exposure to secondhand smoke.
3. Eat properly. Reduce your consumption of saturated fat and red meat, which appears to increase the risk of colon and prostate cancers. Limit your intake of charbroiled foods (especially meat), and avoid deep-fried foods. Increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Although other reports are mixed, two large 2003 studies found that high-fiber diets may reduce the risk of colon cancer. And don't forget to eat fish two to three times a week; you'll get protection from heart disease, and you may reduce your risk of prostate cancer.
4. Exercise regularly. Physical activity has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer, and it may even help prevent prostate cancer. Exercise also appears to reduce a woman's risk of breast and possibly reproductive cancers. Exercise will help protect you even if you don't lose weight.
5. Stay lean. Obesity increases the risk of many forms of cancer. Calories count; if you need to slim down, take in fewer calories and burn more with exercise.
6. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to one to two drinks a day. Excess alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, larynx (voice box), esophagus (food pipe), liver, and colon; it also increases a woman's risk of breast cancer. Smoking further increases the risk of many alcohol-induced malignancies.
7. Avoid exposure to industrial and environmental toxins such as asbestos fibers, benzene, aromatic amines, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
8. Avoid infections that contribute to cancer, including hepatitis viruses, HIV, and the human papillomavirus. Many are transmitted sexually or through contaminated needles.
9. Consider taking low-dose aspirin. Men who take aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs appear to have a lower risk of colon cancer and possibly prostate cancer. It's an unproven benefit, and aspirin can produce gastric bleeding and other side effects, even in low doses. On the plus side, though, low-dose aspirin does protect men from heart attacks and the most common type of stroke; men at the highest risk reap the greatest benefits.
10. Get enough vitamin D. Many experts now recommend 800 to 1,000 IU a day, a goal that's nearly impossible to attain without taking a supplement. Although protection is far from proven, evidence suggests that vitamin D may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer, colon cancer, and other malignancies. But don't count on other supplements. Careful studies show that selenium, vitamins C and E, beta carotene, folic acid, and multivitamins are not protective, and that some may do more harm than good.
These lifestyle changes will yield another cancer-preventing benefit: if you stay healthy, you won't need cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiotherapy, drugs that suppress the immune system) that have the ironic side effect of increasing the risk of additional cancers.
(C) 2009. PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLGE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.