Take Charge of Your Cancer Risk
When it comes to cancer, it's important to know that your health isn't entirely in the hands of fate. There's actually a lot you can do to protect yourself, starting with knowing your level of risk. Then, you'll have a better idea of how you can help improve your chance of staying healthy.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it's estimated that more than 192,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. And, more than 192,000 women find out that they have breast cancer. This makes them two of the most common cancers in the United States. Together, they cause more deaths than any other type of cancer except that of the lung.
Protecting your prostate
Experts aren't sure what causes this cancer.
What we do know is that some men have a higher risk:
Should you be tested?
There are no clear-cut guidelines for routine testing of all men. The ACS says that the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test and the digital rectal exam should be discussed and offered yearly to men at age 50 who are at average risk and have a life expectancy of at least 10 years.
Prostate cancer tends to grow slowly, so if it develops later in life, it may not progress enough to pose major problems. When it occurs at a younger age but isn't caught early, it may be more likely to shorten a man's life span.
Both tests may find prostate cancers early. But, sometimes they may not detect a tumor, or they may indicate a problem when there isn't one.
Is prevention possible?
No cause-and-effect relationship has been proved, but healthy living may provide some benefits.
Here are some suggestions:
Avoid animal fat. A high-fat diet has been linked with the disease. So, the ACS recommends eating less red meat, especially fatty or processed cuts. It's also important to eat fruits and vegetables, at least five servings a day.
Consume more lycopene. This antioxidant has shown promise in some studies. It's found in red plant foods such as pink grapefruit and watermelon. Cooked tomatoes are an especially good source.
Be careful with dietary supplements. Large trials have looked into nutritional supplements, such as vitamin E and the mineral selenium, but results to date have not shown that any clearly reduces prostate cancer risk. Before taking any type of supplement for any reason, talk with your doctor. He or she can help you weigh all the risks and benefits and should conduct a complete exam first.
Keep an eye on research. Early results for the medication finasteride look especially promising. One trial has shown that it lowered prostate cancer risk in men who were considered high risk. But, men in the study who did develop cancer tended to have one that was a higher grade. This means that the cancer was more likely to progress.
On guard against breast cancer
As with prostate cancer, experts aren't sure why some women develop breast cancer, while others don't.
But studies have identified several factors that may increase a woman's risk:
Inherited gene mutations or changes
A family history of breast cancer
Giving birth at an older age or not having children at all
Starting to menstruate before age 12 or going through menopause after age 55
Because so many of the risk factors for breast cancer are beyond your control, screenings may offer you the best protection from the disease.
What about screenings?
"Mammograms are the single best tool for early detection of breast cancer," says Mary Barton, M.D., an assistant professor at Harvard University Medical School and an expert on breast cancer screening. Only two to four mammograms out of every 1,000 lead to a diagnosis of cancer. One hundred percent of women are still alive five years later if their cancer was found before it had spread to the surrounding lymph nodes.
When should you start getting mammograms? Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often they should get them. If you're more likely to develop breast cancer because of other risk factors, it may be wise to start earlier.
"Talk with your doctor about these screening tests," says Dr. Barton. "And, return to the subject now and then. New technologies have the potential to make great advances in detection in the future."
What about prevention?
"Any positive changes that you make, either alone or in consultation with your doctor, have the power to improve your chance for a healthy future," says Dr. Barton. "Even small steps such as losing five pounds can make a difference in your health and longevity."
Here are other suggestions:
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese as an adult raises the risk for developing breast cancer. Carrying the extra pounds around your waist also increases the risk.
Exercise regularly. Studies have shown that walking briskly at least 30 minutes a day above the usual activities, on five or more days of the week may help prevent some cancers. Forty-five to 60 minutes of physical activity is preferable.
Limit alcohol use. There's a clear link between alcohol and breast cancer. Having two to five drinks a day increases your risk by an alarming 150 percent.
Women who have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or who have a mother and sister with breast cancer, are at higher risk and should talk to their health care provider about potential means of preventing breast cancer from occurring. Taking tamoxifen as a preventive measure, prophylactic mastectomy, or hormone therapy may also be prevention options.