Despite the warnings to eat right, exercise, stop smoking and wear sunscreen, cancer remains one of the most prevalent and dangerous diseases of modern society. In sifting through all the advice, experts say that just adopting one or two preventive strategies is not enough.
“Only taking on one of these recommendations may help, but will not be as useful as taking a more holistic approach to decreasing one's cancer risk,” says Dr. Mark Varvares, director of Saint Louis University Cancer Center and a SLUCare otolaryngologist.
Dr. Shaun Donegan, an oncologist with Mercy Clinic Cancer Care, agrees that the synergistic nature of cancer formation makes it hard to pinpoint a single behavior to adopt or avoid. “Multiple risk factors for the development of cancer have been identified, including tobacco use, obesity, lack of physical activity, diet low in fruits and vegetables, and excessive sun exposure,” he notes. “This illustrates the complexity of cancer, and the interplay of hereditary predisposition and environmental factors.”
However, pushed to recommend one most important factor in cancer prevention, both experts agree: smoking cessation. “Historically, tobacco abuse, which has been linked to a multitude of cancers as well as cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, is public enemy number one, and immediate cessation is recommended across the board,” Donegan says. “The other risk factors are likely intertwined, as those with a prudent diet also may be more likely to exercise and be aware of their weight.”
Vavrares adds that recommended cancer screenings—even the unpleasant ones—are key to preventing cancer or catching it early when it is most treatable. He names colonoscopy as the most-avoided screening test. “Breast cancer screening is another evaluation that most women will and do undergo, especially if they have a primary-care physician who reminds them. And even though mildly unpleasant, it’s relatively quick,” he says of mammograms. “The major issue here is access—many may not have a primary-care physician or insurance. But there are mechanisms to make this available to all women. Not so for colonoscopy. There is no free screening program for this, such as the state's Show Me Healthy Woman that provides breast cancer screening to uninsured women.”
On the other hand, some people heed every piece of advice they read or hear, trying an array of products and strategies that are not proven and may even be potentially harmful. “It seems that we are inundated with various supplements to help with nearly every aspect of our life,” Donegan says. “Unfortunately, nearly every study with supplements has been of no benefit in cancer reduction or even worse, detrimental. Beta-carotene actually increases the risk of lung cancer development, and studies with vitamins C and E have been widely disappointing as well. Vitamin D studies have been highly variable in reducing the risk of colon cancer. Selenium and vitamin E failed in prostate cancer reduction, and vitamin E alone increased the risk of developing prostate cancer in the SELECT trial.”
So what are we to do? “I think the most important thing is that, although there are some factors that can't be changed, such as your own genetics, you can understand your own inherited risk and act upon it and that by paying attention to the recommendations for screening, preventive vaccinations at the right age and healthy lifestyle choices, such as watching your weight, exercise, healthy foods, never or quitting smoking, watching sun exposure, etc.,” Vavares says.