I grew up moving around quite a bit, so I never really got to know my extended family. I saw grandparents on holidays, and a couple aunts and uncles once in a great while. But other than my parents and sister, most of my relatives were strangers to me.
Years ago, I dragged myself to a family reunion and saw an older cousin, Barbara, who I never knew very well, but always kind of admired. She was cool and a little edgy. I figured her super short haircut was just a new style she was trying out, so I made sure to compliment her on it. After several seconds of awkward silence, she laughed and said “thanks, it’s finally growing back in.” I’d forgotten she had been fighting cancer and lost her hair during chemotherapy treatments. She died a couple years later, but I like to remember her trying to find humor in a desperate situation.
Her father, my uncle, had been a heavy smoker and passed away from lung cancer several years earlier. Her doctors believed exposure to his second-hand smoke caused Barbara’s cancer.
We know now that both of their battles could have probably been prevented. Researchers have proven time and time again that any use of tobacco is dangerous, not just to the user, but often to those around them. And it’s not just lung cancer. Smokers are also at high risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, kidney, stomach, colon, and more.
Tobacco use in the US has declined sharply over the past 50 years, from 42% of adults in 1965, to less than 14% today. But that still leaves about 34 million Americans putting themselves, and those around them, in danger.
February is National Cancer Prevention Month, a perfect time to highlight avoidable risks.
Not all diseases can be prevented, but many of the most common cancers are a result of our own behaviors. Everyone knows that cigarettes and other tobaccos are dangerous. Smoking is an obvious issue. So don’t do it! Here are other ways you can avoid the Big C.
Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen! Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and also the most preventable. It’s estimated that as many as one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30, protective clothing, and shade are the easiest and most effective forms of protection. And everyone should stay out of tanning beds.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity and lack of physical activity have been linked to several forms of cancer, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and possibly even pancreatic, just to name a few. Just 30 minutes of physical activity each day can make a huge difference in your overall health. In addition to reducing your cancer risk, you’ll also have better energy, reduced stress, and a stronger immune system!
Eat well. Diets that include lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains have been shown to reduce cancer risks. Limiting red meat and processed foods, as well as alcohol consumption, have also been shown to reduce the risk of liver, colorectal, and other cancers.
Get vaccinated. About a third of liver cancers and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma are linked to Hepatitis B and C. A vaccine for Hepatitis B is widely available and highly recommended. (Hepatitis C is generally curable with treatment.) And the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is known to greatly reduce risks of cervical and several other cancers. Despite well publicized concern over this vaccine in recent years, there is no evidence to suggest a risk of serious side effects.
We can’t, yet, prevent all diseases. But 30-50% of all cancers are preventable. Simple steps and avoidable behaviors are the most effective ways to lower your risk.