February is National Cancer Prevention Month. In Minnesota, there are an estimated 142,369 new cancer cases every year.
Professor Timothy Church with the University of Minnesota answers questions on lifestyle changes people can make to reduce their risk of getting cancer.
Q: What is cancer?
Prof. Church: Cancer arises from an error in the genetic code in certain cells in the body. When genes in these cells change in a way that allows the cells to grow and divide without limitation, cancer can arise. As the out-of-control cells produce more and more copies of themselves, the resulting tumor can invade other parts of the body and interfere with normal functioning.
Q: How can physical activity play a role in cancer prevention?
Prof. Church: Regular exercise, even if moderate, has a host of health effects on your body. It can lead to better sleep, mood, digestion, immune function, weight control, hormone regulation, and circulation. It can also lead to a stronger heart, bones and lungs. There is some evidence it can reduce the risk of some cancers, especially breast and colon cancer.
Q: What are some dietary recommendations to reduce cancer risk?
Prof. Church: A healthy diet consisting of reasonable caloric intake with plentiful vegetables and fruit, moderate to small amounts of red meat and fat, and minimal processed carbohydrates and sugar. This diet is not only heart healthy, but also reduces the risk for many cancers. Related to diet is weight. Several cancers, including colon and breast, are related to excessive weight. A healthy diet can be the key to weight control.
Q: Are there any other lifestyle habits you would recommend to prevent cancer?
Prof. Church: Here are habits people can adopt to help prevent cancer:
- Don’t smoke: Regular smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by 10-fold or more. It is related to bladder, head and neck cancer, along with heart and lung diseases, among other health issues. Not smoking in the first place is the best strategy, but quitting will reduce the risk of cancer over time.
- Avoid excessive sun exposure: Too much exposure to the sun — including the use of tanning booths — can lead to skin cancer.
- Avoid dangerous environmental/occupational chemicals: Environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, and some industrial chemicals like benzene can cause lung, blood and other cancers. Radon in homes and workplaces can also cause lung cancer. Second-hand smoke may also be a risk.
- Get cancer screenings: Get screened for cancers that can be detected early enough to prevent death and disease when you become eligible. Cervical cancer, caused by sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), can be caught early through Papanicolaou smears taken during a pelvic exam or through tests to detect HPV infections for women ages 21 to 65. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends young people should be vaccinated for HPV beginning around age 11 to prevent infection in the first place, and the vaccine can be administered to people up to age 26. Elimination of HPV will prevent cervical cancer.
Women aged 40 or older should talk to their physicians about mammography screening for breast cancer. Those over 45 should be screened annually. All adults over the age of 50 should be screened for colon or rectal cancer using colonoscopy, a procedure that examines the large bowel, or stool tests to detect signs of cancer. Heavy smokers aged 55 or older should be screened using a special x-ray machine called a spiral CT (computed tomography) that can detect small cancers of the lung before they become incurable.
Q: What are you doing to study cancer prevention?
Prof. Church: Currently, my colleagues and I are looking for ways to screen for cancer using simple blood tests, and exploring ways that things like calcium, aspirin, vitamin D, ginger, and other substances might prevent colon cancer. We are also studying ways to allow more people to be screened and to improve screening using stool tests and colonoscopy. We are also examining why some people get cancer and some don’t based on their genes; where they live; what they do for work; and what they eat, drink, and smoke, to help people understand their risk and reduce it.
I also work with the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to evaluate and summarize cancer research for doctors and the general public, and with the American Cancer Society to develop and publish guidelines for cancer screening based on the always changing research.
Timothy Church is a professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a Masonic Cancer Center member. His areas of expertise include cancer screening, colorectal cancer, medical device evaluation, biostatistics, epidemiologic methods, and clinical trial design. His research interests include clinical trials and epidemiological studies related to screening for and prevention of cancer, as well as the development of biostatistical and epidemiologic methods.
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