there was a time when "cancer" was a word that was only whispered in polite society. It was the devastating, insidious illness that almost nothing could be done about.
Today, we know a great deal more about cancer and have made advances in its treatment. In fact, there are a number of common-sense ways to reduce your risk of getting certain kinds of cancer.
And guess what? They're the same things you do to avoid getting heart disease. Watching your weight, avoiding junk food and getting exercise also greatly reduce your chances of getting cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, about a third of the 550,000 American cancer deaths each year are linked to obesity, poor diet and inactivity. Another third are due to smoking.
To cite just one number: "Forty percent of breast cancer cases in the U.S. — about 70,000 cases a year — could be prevented" by changes in behavior, says Susan Higginbotham, director of research for the American Institute of Cancer Research.
Here are the key lifestyle issues associated with cancer risk:
More than 100,000 cancer cases each year — cancers of the uterus, esophagus, pancreas, kidney, gallbladder, breast and colon — are linked to being overweight, according to the AICR. Scientists believe it partly has to do with estrogen stored in and produced by our fat cells.
In women, "fat cells are a major source of estrogen after menopause," says Michael Thun, vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance at the American Cancer Society. That estrogen, he notes, "promotes the development of uterine and breast cancer." Fat also increases the concentration of a substance called insulin-like growth factor, which has also been linked to cancer. Furthermore, recent studies have looked at chronic inflammation — to which obesity contributes — and its role in various cancers, including those of the liver, esophagus and gallbladder. But the key, says Thun, is to maintain a healthy weight, not gain and lose.
• PHYSICAL INACTIVITY
"The sedentary lifestyle is a big contributor to cancer, we now think," says Higginbotham — and not just because it leads to weight gain. Research is suggesting there's something risky about inactivity itself.
The strongest evidence involves colon cancer. One review found that just getting exercise reduced colon cancer risk by 50 percent, regardless of the intensity of the workout. Thun thinks exercise may speed up your digestive processes, so that food moves faster through your system.
With breast cancer, a 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that as little as 30 minutes a day of walking could mean a 20 percent reduction in risk. The effects were strongest among women in the normal weight range, a 37 percent risk reduction.
• DRINKING PAST MODERATION
"Heavy drinking increases the risk of about five cancers in your upper airway and digestive tract," says Thun. The organs affected are the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx and liver. Even moderate amounts of alcohol have been linked to an increased risk for breast cancer in women who are in menopause. Limit alcohol to two drinks a day for men and one for women.
Smoking is by far the most researched and proven cause of cancer, a true slam dunk, going back to the 1964 surgeon general's report. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 180,000 Americans die every year from cancer related to tobacco: smoking, chewing or breathing in somebody else's smoke. Thun notes that smoking has been linked to 15 types of cancer, including mouth, throat, esophagus and lung, liver, stomach, colon, kidney, bladder and even cervix. It is no surprise, he says, because cigarette smoke has "40 different known carcinogens." If you're a smoker, the younger you quit, the better your odds.
Dr. Mishori is a family physician and faculty member in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.