| Mark Varvares, M.D., is director of the Saint Louis University Cancer Center.
ST. LOUIS. - In 1971, President Nixon funded research to wage a war on cancer, a long battle that we're still fighting today. While the last 40 years haven't brought us a cure, we have made some meaningful progress in developing tools and knowledge to take a bite out of our cancer risk.
Mark Varvares, M.D., director of the Saint Louis University Cancer Center, suggests that lifestyle changes and screening tools that have been proven to reduce our cancer risk and to catch cancer early can make a real impact across the span of our lifetime.
"There are some aspects of our cancer risk that are outside of our control," said Varvares, who is also a SLUCare otolaryngologist. "But, we also know that there are things we can do that can significantly decrease our risk of getting cancer.
"I urge people to take advantage of these advances. This information and these screening opportunities weren't always available to our parents and grandparents.
"Healthy choices and preventive screenings won't totally erase cancer, but they can reduce our risk in a really meaningful way. They offer us the chance to change the course of the future, if we take advantage of them."
According to the American Cancer Society, "More than half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by making healthy choices like not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, eating right, keeping active, and getting recommended screening tests."
New Year's resolutions can be fleeting commitments, forgotten by the end of January. Instead of making short-lived pledges for better health, consider that a commitment to these lifestyle changes and screening tools can, over the course of your lifetime, significantly reduce your risk of cancer.
#1: Quit Smoking.
There is no mystery when it comes to the connection between lung cancer and smoking. Smoking causes the vast majority of lung cancer deaths in the U.S. The silver lining of this well-established cause-and-effect is that it makes lung cancer one of the most preventable forms of cancer. The data is clear: stop smoking and you will reduce your lung cancer risk.
TAKE ACTION: SLU Cancer Center offers free eight-week smoking cessation classes four times throughout the year. Personalized smoking cessation consultations are also available. To learn more about these meetings, call (314) 268-7015, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, visit The American Cancer Society's information page for information and resources.
#2: Eat a healthy diet.
Obesity is a risk factor for many cancers, including esophagus, pancreas, colorectal, and breast cancers. Besides eating well to maintain a healthy weight, foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are linked to reduced cancer risk. Limiting red meats and processed meats can lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Many specific foods, like leafy green vegetables or blueberries, have been shown to have specific anti-cancer actions.
TAKE ACTION: Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats to maintain a healthy weight. If you are looking for extra help in starting down the path of healthy eating, visit eatright.org, the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to find a registered dietician in your area.
Staying active has many health benefits, including lowering your risk of developing cancer. Studies show that physical activity lowers risk of colon and breast cancer. There also appear to be links between exercise and reduced prostate, lung and endometrial cancer risks.
TAKE ACTION: If you'd like to start an exercise program, here are two places to begin: A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story offers advice for beginning an exercise routine and tips from a Saint Louis University physical therapist for those who want to join the running revolution.
#4 Limit Your Alcohol.
While some studies suggest potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, the evidence is clear that excessive alcohol intake is bad for your health, and, specifically, can raise certain types of cancer risk. For women, even a few drinks a week may increase breast cancer risk.
Even overuse of mouthwash, which contains alcohol, Varvares says, has been linked to mouth cancer.
TAKE ACTION: Take a realistic look at your alcohol consumption and consider whether it falls within the recommended range: two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
#5: Wear Sunscreen and Avoid Tanning Beds.
As many as one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. Sunscreen, which blocks dangerous rays from the sun, is your best bet to avoid skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen every couple of hours if you'll be outside. Avoid tanning beds altogether, as evidence suggests high incidence of skin cancer for users.
Saint Louis University research has even found links between driving and increased skin cancer, with drivers in the U.S. developing more skin cancer on the left side of their faces due to exposure while in the car.
TAKE ACTION: Wear sunscreen every day and skip the tanning bed.
Though you may not look forward to them, preventive screenings offer some of medicine's best methods for catching cancer before it becomes deadly. Colonoscopy, pap smears and mammography, for example, are some of the most powerful life-saving tools doctors have at their disposal.
Discuss with your physician which screening tests you should schedule, as well as when and how often they should be performed. Ask again at each visit, because guidelines change as new data constantly refines best recommendations. In addition, your doctor may recommend a different screening schedule than the general guidelines based on your personal history, your family history or other factors.
If you're uneasy about screenings, talk to your doctor. He or she can ease worries about a colonoscopy, for example, by explaining more about the procedure.
TAKE ACTION: Talk to your doctor about your family and personal history and learn which tests you should schedule. For motivation, read a cancer screening success story.
The HPV vaccine has a clear record of lowering cervical cancer rates in women, and is now being recommended for boys as well as girls because it shows promise in preventing head and neck cancer, too.
TAKE ACTION: Take advantage of a vaccine that can prevent cancer. The HPV vaccination is recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years.
#8: Consider Genetic Counseling.
For those with a family history of certain cancers, information about our genes can offer choices in dealing with our genetic destiny.
A woman who carries the BRCA breast cancer gene, for example, who has watched families members die at an early age may choose preventive mastectomy rather than risk extremely high odds of developing the same illness. For other cancers, such as colorectal cancer, the presence of a gene may signal the need for increased vigilance, with more frequent screenings to catch any abnormality early.
Genetic screening took center stage last year as actress Angelina Jolie shared her decision to have a preventive mastectomy in response to her own genetic risk.
Genetic counselor at SLU Cancer Center Suzanne Mahon, says that "In deciding whether or not to have the screening, patients should ask ‘Is this something I really want to know about myself. If I know I am at high genetic risk of developing cancer, am I going to do something with this information?'
"Genetic counseling and testing can clarify your risk of cancer. If you under-estimate your risk, you might not have the information you need to make good decisions about prevention and early detection. If we prove you don't have the risk, it can be a big relief."
TAKE ACTION: Genetic counseling isn't recommended for everyone; rather, it's an option for those with family history of certain cancers. If you have a strong history of cancer in your family, discuss with your physician whether you could benefit from more knowledge about your genetic risk or call SLU Cancer Center's heredity risk assessment program at 314-268-7055.