Cancer is perhaps the most feared disease of the modern age. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 1.5 million new cases were diagnosed in 2010, with 31,160 of those diagnosed in Missouri. However, scientists are discovering new cancer prevention strategies, and we now know that there are things we can do proactively.
“People are growing up in America eating processed foods that cause an inflammatory response in the body, and inflammation is the backdrop for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease,” says Dr. Margaret Coplin, a medical oncologist with the St. Louis Cancer and Breast Institute, in partnership with St. John’s Mercy. In addition to her medical degree, Coplin earned a master’s degree in nutrition. “The American Institute of Cancer Research did a study looking at things that cause cancer and ways to prevent it,” she says. “The study found that the best tactics for decreasing cancer risk are staying lean, avoiding processed foods and exercising.”
Although some Americans are infatuated with dietary supplements and nutrient additives, Coplin says the best way to get a healthy dose of nutrients is by eating whole foods. In fact, studies indicate that half a cup of cruciferous vegetables each day (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc.) may decrease breast cancer risk by as much as 40 percent. She notes that no conclusive evidence exists to prove that supplements can reduce cancer risk, yet she allows for fish oil and a multivitamin as the best supplement choices for most people.
While dietary supplements may not be universally recommended, a recent analysis at Oxford University points to daily, low-dose aspirin for colon cancer protection. “Many adults take aspirin every day for heart disease prevention, and now it appears to be useful for cancer prevention, too,” says Dr. Graham Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at the Siteman Cancer Center and chief of the division of public health sciences at the Washington University School of Medicine. “Since most strategies aren’t this simple, a daily aspirin dose has moved up the priority list,” he adds.
Like Coplin, Colditz is a proponent of a healthy whole-foods diet along with regular exercise, both of which are key to maintaining a healthy weight. “There is a synthesis of studies that shows people who are obese have an increased risk of lymphoma and a number of other cancers, such as pancreatic cancer,” he says.
Other strategies include smoking cessation and regular use of sunscreen to reduce risk of lung cancer and skin cancer, respectively. “Multiple strategies to reduce risk do add up,” Colditz notes. “It’s best to do all these things: quit smoking, watch your weight, exercise, use sunscreen and take a daily aspirin.”
While people are encouraged to stack multiple strategies for maximum benefit, not all cancer prevention tactics are equal. For instance, smoking cessation bestows rapid benefits; however, it may take 20 years for an ex-smoker to attain the same lung cancer risk as someone who has never smoked. On the other hand, some drugs, such as tamoxifen for breast cancer recurrence prevention, offer protective benefits that persist well after the drug therapy is ended. “There are a growing number of examples that suggest we don’t have to make some drug-based strategies a lifelong endeavor,” Colditz says. “All of the current estimates continue to be studied and refined, but it would be best if drugs could be used for a set period of time and then stopped. This would decrease the risk of side effects, inherent in any drug, while continuing the beneficial effects.” He adds that healthy weight maintenance and regular physical activity are lifelong behaviors that must be consistent over the long term in order to continue reaping benefits.