Even as we celebrated World Cancer Day on February 4, there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the disease. Cancer is a dreadful disease and the mere mention of it can cause a wave of depression and result in emotional turmoil not only for the patient but for the family members as well. Advancements in cancer treatments and cancer detection methods do not completely eradicate the cancer burden. Primary prevention of cancer is a logical and crucial strategy in curbing the disease.
Diet, physical activity and obesity are directly linked to DNA repair, inflammation, immune response, insulin resistance, cell death, cell differentiation, carcinogenic clearance and hormonal regulation. All these can lead to cancer in case of failure and or de-regulation at any of the checkpoints in our body.
Here are some lifestyle changes that can help prevent cancer -
1. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life:
You must be as lean as possible throughout your life. Excess weight gain must be avoided at all points of time. Those who are overweight/obese can achieve many health benefits with even a small amount of weight loss.
Regular physical activity and limited intake of high-calorie foods and beverages are key for maintaining a healthy weight.
2. Adoption of a physically active lifestyle:
When you exercise, you are not only making yourself healthier, but decreasing the risk of certain types of cancers as well. The American Institute for Cancer Research currently recommends that everyone must exercise for at least 45 minutes per day. This doesn't mean that you have to hit the gym to lift weights. Even activities like gardening, a few times a week, significantly decreases the risk of lung cancer. Moderate exercise not only improves the cardiovascular health, but reduces risk of colon cancer by 40 percent. For cancer survivors, exercise can make a big difference in preventing recurrences.
Adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, preferably throughout the week or 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
Children and adolescents must do at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous intensity activity each day, with vigorous intensity activity at least three times per week.
Sedentary activity like sitting, lying down, watching T.V, or other screen-based entertainment must be reduced.
3. Healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant sources:
A well-balanced diet is advantageous for multiple reasons. Fruits and vegetables greatly reduce the risk of developing cancer along with reduced incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and other deadly disorders. They contain antioxidants that help in repairing damaged cells. Cruciferous vegetables and berries are rich in vitamins, fiber, and disease-fighting phytochemicals like broccoli, kale, cabbage and radishes.
Avoid sugary drinks. Limited intake of energy-dense foods is advisable. Many studies show that a diet high in animal fat increases the risk of many cancers, like colon cancer. High intake of red meat, packaged and processed meats poses a greater risk of developing cancers.
Moderation is the essential key for intake of these foods, but pay attention to how you prepare them as well. For example, marinating meat significantly reduces the carcinogenic content before grilling. Trimming fat from red meat is not only good for heart health, but also reduces the risk of breast and colon cancers. Research shows that fatty foods boost bile production and hormones that lead to cancer development. Vegetarians are less likely to get cancer when compared to regular red meat eaters.
You must eat at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruits each day and include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.
Salty foods and processed food especially with salt (sodium) must be avoided.
Alcoholic beverages should be limited. Many studies have shown that men who consume even two drinks per day and women who drink as little as one have a greater chance of developing hepatocellular carcinoma and many other cancers. Breast cancer risk increases up about 7% with every 10 grams of alcohol daily. Hence reduce and seek alcohol treatment if you are unable to stop.
4. Quit smoking:
Smoking is the most significant cancer risk factor we can control. It causes not only lung cancer but many other types of cancer. One of the best ways to reduce risk is to quit smoking or never start. It's never too late to stop even if you've smoked for 20, 30, or 40 years. Cigar smoking is problematic and there is increasing evidence that hookah smoking is dangerous as well.
Avoiding second hand smoke is key to reducing risk.
5. Know your medical history:
Family history of cancer is one of those risk factors you can't change but it can help you make better choices in order to avoid cancer. Most of us know, for example, that certain genes can predispose a person to breast cancer.
When consulting your doctor, take the time to construct a complete family history, to include cancers/ illnesses a relative may have had. Your doctor can a formulate a strategy to deal with the factors that can be controlled to aim in reducing your personal cancer risk. Breast feeding is protective against breast cancers and must be promoted and adopted.
Do not use dietary supplements to protect against cancer.
6. Practice Safe Sex:
There are certain viruses that can cause cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus, for example, has strong correlation in almost half of all Hodgkin's disease diagnoses as well as many kinds of leukemias and lymphomas.
One of the major threats today, is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) called the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a viral infection that is responsible for majority of cervical cancers. HPV is also responsible for other types of cancers like head, neck, anal, penile, vulvar and vaginal cancers.
Practicing safe sex significantly reduces the risk of cancer by preventing exposure to the virus. Consistent condom use, whether for vaginal, anal, or oral sex, is still considered the best means of preventing STDs like HPV and HIV. Immunization with HPV vaccine is currently recommended for all children between the ages of 10 and 12 years up to the age of 26.
7. Radon Exposure and Skin Cancer:
Radon exposure in buildings is often not thought about due to lack of awareness and scarcity of Indian data. Radon is an odorless, colorless gas released from the normal decay of uranium and has an important role in causing lung cancers. It is found all around the world and can affect not only the air but also the water we drink.
Skin cancer is caused due to ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure. You can use sunscreen, avoid the midday sun, wear protective clothing when outdoors, and avoid tanning beds especially in the west to prevent skin cancers. They can develop in body parts that are not exposed to sunlight. If you have many moles, you must be vigilant to spot signs of developing malignancies like any change in size, shape, texture or number.
8. Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals:
Chemicals at home and workplace can significantly increase the risk of developing many types of cancer. Good ventilation and gloves when working with harsh chemicals or cleaners is a good practice.
When at work, you must not be afraid to ask what chemicals you're being exposed to in the course of your employment. One must read the Material Data Safety Sheets (MDSS) your employer is required to maintain and contact the concerned people in case of any concerns. Asbestos exposure is directly related to causing lung cancer.
Lastly public, private, and community organizations must work together at national, state, and local levels to implement environment friendly policies and that:
(1) Increase access to affordable, healthy foods in communities, workplaces and schools and reduce access to marketing of foods and beverages of low nutritional value.
(2) Provide safe, enjoyable, and accessible environments for physical activity in schools, workplaces, for transportation & recreation.
Each one of us should undertake at least one aspect of our lifestyle and modify it to a healthier option. We must not wait for the disease to develop, rather change ourselves and our behaviors for a healthier and more fulfilling life.
(Dr Mukul Roy is Consultant Radiation Oncology, Jaslok Hospital and Research, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)