Your Cancer Risk
newspapers and other media are rife with reports that this or
that food or chemical or environmental factoreverything
from canaries to toasterscauses cancer. But most reports
are given out of context, and it's easy to lose sight of the big
picture and of the scientific progress that's been made in understanding
and preventing cancer.
Many of us
worry too much about possible cancer promoters that are actually
negligible. And at the same time, we may pay too little attention
to simple but effective measures we can take to protect ourselves.
Important measures for preventing cancer are already at hand.
Here are some important guidelines to follow:
Don't smoke. Tobacco use
causes more cancer here and in the rest of the world than anything
else. The longer you smoke, and the more you smoke, the likelier
it is to be lethal. Besides lung cancer, smoking increases the
risk of cancer of the bladder, cervix, mouth, throat, pancreas,
kidney, and stomach. It may also promote colon and even breast
cancer. About 3 million people die of smoking-related causes every
year around the world, and that number will rise to 10 million
in the next century if the number of smokers continues to increase.
Passive smoking (inhaling other people's smoke) causes thousands
of deaths a year.
If all tobacco users in this country quit, total deaths from cancer
would eventually drop by at least one-third. Lung cancer would
become a rare disease, rather than the major cancer killer of
both American men and women that it now is.
Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole
grains. Diet causes about one-third of all cancer cases,
almost as many as tobacco use. Having a diet that consists predominantly
of fruits, vegetables, and grains (the current recommendation
is at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day) is the
most important factor currently identified in the prevention of
cancer through diet. The evidence for this is overwhelming: study
after study has confirmed that people who have the highest intakes
of fruit and vegetables have the lowest rates of most cancers.
Fruits and vegetables contain large amounts of antioxidant vitamins
(C and E), as well as folacin, carotenoids, and dietary fiber,
which are all important in preventing cancer. Many phytochemicals
(plant chemicals) have been shown to have cancer-fighting potential
in laboratory studiesand many are still waiting to be discovered.
Eat less animal fat. A diet
high in animal fat, especially from red meat, has shown up in
several studies as a risk factor for prostate and colon cancer.
A high-fat diet is also suspected of being a factor in breast
cancer, although recent research suggests there is no link. Countries
with high-fat diets do have the highest rates of breast and prostate
cancer, but other factors could be at work.
Don't cook meats at very high temperatures,
especially over an open flame. This creates compounds known to
promote certain cancersfor example, polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons (PAHs), which form when meats are charcoal-broiled.
An occasional barbecue is probably not harmful. You're better
off to steam, braise, bake, poach, stew, or microwave than to
Limit your alcohol intake.
Moderate alcohol intake can help prevent heart disease. ("Moderate"
means no more than one drink daily for women, two for men.) But
too much alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
Especially when combined with smoking, heavy drinking also contributes
to cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus, for example. Thus,
some experts still say that drinking no alcohol is best.
Be active. In the past ten
years, studies have suggested that exercise helps prevent breast
and prostate cancer, and there's solid evidence it can prevent
colon cancer. It's hard to say what level of activity is needed;
but moderate activity starting early in a woman's life seems to
protect against breast cancer.
Control your weight. Being
significantly overweight puts you at risk for such diseases as
stroke and heart disease, and probably also for some cancers (uterine
and postmenopausal breast cancer in women; colon and prostate
cancer in men). No one is sure why obesity might boost the risk
of cancer. Nevertheless, this is still another reason to maintain
a healthy weight.
Limit your exposure to the sun.
Use a potent sunscreen when you are in the sun. Cumulative sun
exposure is responsible for most skin cancers, which account for
about 2% of cancer deaths.
Limit workplace exposure to chemicals.
For people who work with cancer-causing chemicals, such as asbestos,
benzene, and formaldehyde, this is a serious problem. However,
extensive exposure to such chemicals is uncommon among the population
What about pesticides?
is a complex mixture of natural ingredients, not all of them benign.
Plants themselves produce pesticides to ward off attack from animals
and microorganisms. Our bodies are equipped to defend themselves
against most of the potentially harmful elements in foods, just
as we have chemical defenses against other kinds of low-level
toxins. But it's man-made pesticides that cause the most worry.
Humans have been consuming natural pesticides for thousands of
years, and we may have ways of protecting ourselves from them,
whereas we might be less able to fend off synthetic chemicals.
Much remains to be learned about pesticide residues in foods.
As yet, there's no evidence that they are a significant cause