According to the American Cancer Society, cancer accounts for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths. In just this year alone, approximately 600,920 Americans are expected to die of cancer. That’s a sobering statistic that translates to about 1,650 people per day. But there are steps you can take to prevent certain cancers, and the dangerous impact of some cancers can be lessened with proper screenings and early detection.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a disease of the cells and involves the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. Think of your body as having a genetic instruction manual inside it, a system that tells your cells how to grow, reproduce, and die. If the genetic instructions get misinterpreted by a cell, it can cause the cell to behave in an abnormal way. The misbehaving cells can then move throughout your body through the bloodstream, infecting more cells and spreading the cancer.
Luckily, our bodies have a defensive strategy for making sure these abnormal cells get a small chance to reproduce. Because a potentially cancerous cell has to make it past so many of our natural defenses, it can take years for cancer to develop. And over a person’s lifetime, thousands of abnormal cells get disposed of before they can cause any harm. But if an abnormal cell does manage to get past our defenses and start multiplying without control, it can form a mass of cells called a tumor.
When you hear the word tumor, you might instantly think cancer, but not all tumors are dangerous. The mass or growth itself may be benign, which would mean generally harmless. Or it could be malignant, which would mean cancerous. Malignant tumors can spread into surrounding tissues, damaging nearby cells or organs.
One way the number of new cancer cases can be reduced and many cancer deaths can be prevented is through cancer screenings.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there are four types of screenings:
- Physical exam and history: In this case, a physical exam of the body is done to not only check for general signs of health, but also for signs of potential disease, such as unusual looking or shaped spots or moles, lumps, etc. The patient’s health history is also taken to determine general health habits and past illnesses and treatments.
- Laboratory tests: These are medical procedures that test samples of body tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body.
- Imaging: Procedures such as CT scans and MRIs, which provide images of areas inside the body.
- Genetic tests: Tests conducted to look for certain gene mutations (changes) that are linked to some forms of cancer.
Cancer screenings are designed to look for cancer before a person shows symptoms. They can be effective in identifying certain cancers and allowing time to treat the disease earlier, when treatments may work best. They may find precancerous cells so they can be treated before they become cancerous.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force develops recommendations for clinical preventive services, including who should get specific cancer screenings and how often. In many cases, health insurance companies will cover certain recommended screenings, like mammograms, Pap tests, and colonoscopies, without a deductible or copay. Ask your doctor about recommended cancer screenings.
There are vaccines that can also help lower cancer risk. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine helps prevent most cervical cancers and several other kinds of cancer, and the hepatitis B virus (HBV) vaccine can help lower the risk of liver cancer.
Lifestyle changes can also make a significant difference. A person’s cancer risk can be reduced by making healthy choices like avoiding tobacco use, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding exposure to the sun or wearing protective clothing and sunscreen when in the sun, eating fruits and vegetables, keeping a healthy weight, and being physically active.
In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) estimates that approximately one-third of cases of the most common cancers in the U.S. could be prevented by eating healthy, being active, and staying lean. To help you get started, the AICR suggests focusing on these three goals:
- Choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat, and avoid processed meat
- Be physically active every day in any way for 30 minutes or more
- Aim to be a healthy weight throughout life
Avoiding tobacco use is also a big way to make a major impact. This includes avoiding chewing tobacco and limiting your exposure to secondhand smoke.
If quitting smoking is difficult for you, check out the American Cancer Society’s Guide to Quitting Smoking for assistance. And since it’s sometimes easier to accomplish a goal if you are doing it for someone else rather than yourself, keep in mind that your smoking has the potential to negatively impact others around you. Secondhand smoke has officially been classified as a known human carcinogen (a cancer-causing agent).
According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers in the U.S. as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke. And the U.S. Surgeon General warns that living with a smoker can increase a non-smoker’s chance of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent.
Although more research is needed to confirm such a connection, there is also some research that suggests secondhand smoke may increase the risk of breast cancer, and nasal sinus cavity cancer or nasopharyngeal cancer (head and neck cancer) in adults and the risk of leukemia, lymphoma, and brain tumors in children.
Prevention is Key
One of the most important things you can do in the fight against cancer is explore every possible way to prevent it or lessen its potential impact. That means avoiding or controlling things that are known to cause cancer, finding precancerous conditions early enough to treat them, following your doctor's recommendations for cancer screenings and vaccinations, and making changes in your diet and lifestyle that could help keep you cancer-free.