While many people are afraid of getting cancer, few are aware that there are things we can do to reduce our risk. Experts estimate that one-half to two-thirds of cancer cases could be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices.
What causes cancer?
Cancer is not just one disease, but many different diseases that have one thing in common: uncontrolled growth of cells. Scientists have discovered the causes of some types of cancers, but others still remain a mystery. However, it is estimated that about 30 per cent of cancers are related to tobacco use. Another 30 to 40 per cent are related to nutrition, obesity and physical activity. Other less common causes include viruses, environmental toxins, and heredity.
What can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?
No one can predict who will or will not get cancer. However, there are simple things people can do to improve their chances of staying healthy. Many of the tips mentioned here are also effective in lowering risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other diseases.
Avoid all forms of tobacco and second-hand smoke. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in Canada. Smoking causes cancers of the lungs, mouth, throat, voice box and esophagus (the tube to the stomach). It also contributes to other cancers, including those of the bladder, kidney and cervix (found at the top of the birth canal).
Quitting smoking is difficult, but now more than ever there are many products and services to help people to quit. If you know someone who is trying to quit, recognize how difficult it is. Most smokers try several times before they quit successfully. Be supportive of their efforts - many ex-smokers say quitting was the hardest thing they have ever done!
Pipes, cigars and smokeless tobacco are not safe substitutes. Risk for lung cancer remains high for cigar smokers who inhale. Smokeless tobacco (spit tobacco and snuff) causes cancer of the mouth and contributes to throat, voice box and esophagus cancers.
Second-hand smoke is exhaled by smokers or is from the ends of cigarettes, cigars or pipes. It causes lung cancer and heart disease in non-smokers, as well as a host of other health problems. About 350 non-smokers in Canada die of lung cancer each year because they were exposed to second-hand smoke. Support the development and enforcement of laws to reduce or ban smoking in public places and support smoke-free workplaces.
Eat five to 10 servings of vegetables and fruits each day. A balanced diet, based on Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, is very important in preventing cancer. Experts estimate that if most people ate at least five servings of vegetables and fruits daily, about 20 per cent of cancers could be prevented. However, most Canadians are probably not eating as many servings as they should. Although various foods from time to time are suggested as the cancer preventing food, there are no magic bullets. Eating a wide variety of whole foods, not supplements, is the best way to obtain nutrients that fight cancer.
Some people think that it would be very hard to eat the recommended amount of vegetables and fruit, but it’s easy! Fresh, frozen, canned and dried forms are all nutritious. For tips on increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits you eat, check out the 5 to 10 a day – Are you getting enough? website. For general information on healthy eating, try the Dietitians of Canada website.
Enjoy regular physical activity. Physical activity protects against the development of colon and breast cancers and probably prostate cancer. You can reduce your risk by following Canada’s Physical Activity Guide. Even moderate physical activity has health benefits.
Maintain a healthy body weight. Scientific evidence has shown a link between obesity and the risk of uterus, breast, kidney and possibly other cancers. You can best achieve and maintain a healthy body weight through a combination of healthy eating and regular physical activity. If you want to check out how your body weight measures up, check out the Dietitians of Canada website.
Limit your alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol increases the risk for a number of cancers. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol you consume. For some cancers, alcohol combined with smoking is an especially bad combination. From a cancer prevention perspective, alcohol should be avoided. If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means no more than one drink per day and no more than seven drinks per week. More than four drinks on one occasion, or more than 14 drinks a week, is a risk to health and safety.
Protect yourself from the sun. Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in Canada. A person born in Canada today has a one-in-seven chance of developing skin cancer in his or her lifetime. The most common cause of skin cancer is repeated exposure to the sun. You can reduce your risk by avoiding outdoor activity between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you are outdoors during these hours, seek shade, slip on a shirt, slap on a hat and slop on sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) - frequently and thoroughly!
Safely handle and dispose of house, garden and craft-related chemicals. Most people will only have minimal exposure at home to any particular chemical. However, it makes sense to protect yourself and the environment from potentially dangerous materials. Follow health and safety instructions for handling and disposal of hazardous materials.
Talk to your doctor about cancer screening. Screening for some cancers, such as mammography for detecting breast cancer, does not prevent these diseases. But these tests find them at an earlier stage when they are more treatable. Some other types of screening, such as Pap tests for cancer of the cervix, find changes that are not yet cancer, but might develop into cancer if they are not treated. By treating these precancerous conditions, cancer is prevented. Regular Pap testing is the best way to prevent cancer of the cervix.
Additional Information Sources:
Cancer Information Service, Canadian Cancer Society
Canadian Health Network – www.canadian-health-network.ca
Help the children in your life develop healthy habits right from the start. Many of the good and bad habits we have as adults began when we were children. Parents and other adults have a major influence on the eating, smoking, activity, alcohol, tobacco and sun protection behaviours of the children in their lives. Help the young people in your life develop habits that will give them the best chance for good health throughout their lives. Model these healthy practices and expect that they will follow suit.
While we still don’t have all the answers to why and how cancer develops, there are plenty of things we can do now to help keep ourselves healthy. Adopting these healthy practices will not only help to protect against cancer, but many other health problems as well.
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