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February 16, 2018 - Six steps to reduce your cancer risk

By Dr. Jennifer Y. Pierce
Leader, Cancer Control and Prevention
USA Mitchell Cancer Institute

One in two men will be diagnosed with a malignancy during their lifetime. For women, it’s one in three. If that sounds scary to you, consider this: You have more control over your risk of cancer than you may think.

Pierce mug.jpgIt’s estimated that 30 to 50 percent of cancer is preventable, according to the World Health Organization. As an oncologist and a public health researcher, I find this knowledge to be empowering and encouraging.

I urge you to take advantage of February as National Cancer Prevention Month and commit to lowering your risk of cancer. These are my top six recommendations, all of which are widely endorsed by cancer clinicians and researchers:

  • Don’t use tobacco. If you do, quit. We’re not just talking about cigarettes and lung cancer here. No tobacco is safe. In fact, all tobacco products are known to cause a variety of cancers, from acute myeloid leukemia to pancreatic and stomach cancers.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Some studies point to a Mediterranean-style diet as the healthiest way to eat. Whatever healthy plan you choose, make sure to include more fruits and vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Drink alcohol in moderation, or not at all. Moreover, a healthy diet, combined with regular physical activity, can prevent obesity, which is linked to 14 types of cancers, including such common ones as breast, colorectal and prostate cancer. We are learning that obesity increases inflammation and insulin resistance, which are believed to set the stage for cancer cells to grow.
  • Know your family history and discuss it with your doctor. Inherited genetic mutations play a role in 5 to 10 percent of cancers. If your family history suggests an abnormal occurrence of cancer, you may be directed to genetic counseling or testing, which is available at many academic medical centers, including USA Mitchell Cancer Institute.
  • Be sun smart. To reduce your risk of skin cancer, protect yourself from UV rays with hats and clothing, and apply a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Try to avoid the sun during peak hours, and, by all means, stay away from tanning beds.
  • Get your cancer screenings on time. Cancer screenings don’t just diagnose cancers. They can actually prevent them by catching pre-cancers. Mammograms, Pap tests, skin screenings and colonoscopies should be scheduled regularly, with the frequency determined by your age and family history. For instance, women ages 21-29 should get a Pap test every three years, and women ages 30-65 should get a Pap test and an HPV test every five years. Men should also discuss prostate cancer screening with their doctor. After tests, be sure to follow up on any abnormal results.
  • Get an anti-cancer vaccine. Pre-cancers related to the humanpapillomavirus are more common among women than breast cancer. The HPV vaccine offers protection for a lifetime from seven cancers, including cervical, rectal, penile, vaginal, vulvar, mouth and throat cancers. The vaccine is recommended for girls and boys at age 11-12, with catch-up vaccinations to age 26.

Despite the many advances in treatment, cancer is still the No. 1 most feared diagnosis. Why not take advantage of National Cancer Prevention Month and commit to these six steps?  They could make all the difference.


Dr. Jennifer Y. Pierce is a gynecologic oncologist and leader of Cancer Control and Prevention at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, an academic cancer center with offices in Mobile, Fairhope and Monroeville.


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