MINNEAPOLIS – February is National Cancer Prevention Month. A senior University of Minnesota cancer researcher says health screening, combined with healthy living, goes a long way in fighting many cancers.
According to the American Cancer Society, around 8.1 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2020, with breast, lung, and prostate cancers topping the list.
“(Cancer) is usually localized at the beginning, but it can grow and eventually spread to other parts of the body,” he explains Dr. Tim Church, Biostatistician and cancer researcher. “If they do this, it can affect the functioning of vital organs.”
Church, whose research paved the way for current methods for the early detection and prevention of colon cancer, says healthy eating and an active lifestyle are critical to lowering the risk of many cancers.
“So more fruits, more vegetables, less sugar, and fewer refined carbohydrates,” says Church. “When you eat meat, try not to eat a lot of red or well-made meat – this can specifically lower your risk of cancer. You might have those grilled ribs every other month or so – not every week. “
The Church says a healthy diet should be accompanied by regular aerobic exercise.
“Exercise makes many systems in your body work much better,” Church explains. “You have better sleep, better mood regulation, a healthy cardiovascular system, and a stronger immune system.”
A healthy immune system is essential to prevent cancer cells from growing, according to Church.
“Your immune system is your first line of defense against cancer cells,” he says. “The stronger your immune system, the harder it is for this cancer cell to gain a foothold and actually grow and cause problems.”
In addition to diet and exercise, Church says there are other choices that we can make in our daily lives to reduce our risk of cancer.
“Smoking,” says Church. “I think everyone on the planet now knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but it can also cause bladder and throat cancer. Not smoking is one of the best things to do. “
“Then there is sunlight,” adds Church. “That can lead to an increase in skin cancer. So if you can stay out of the sun in the middle of the day, wear sunscreen, and stay away from tanning booths – all of these things reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, which can be very dangerous. Once the melanoma spreads to the rest of your body, it can be very fatal. “
The Church says people should also try to avoid carcinogenic chemicals at home and at work.
“We all know about asbestos and what a dangerous substance it is,” says Church. “It causes something called mesothelioma. Industrial chemicals like benzene and some of the chemicals used for dry cleaning can cause cancer. Radon in your home or work place can cause cancer and, in fact, secondhand smoke can increase your risk as well. So try to avoid all of these things. “
Another thing that has been instrumental in preventing cancer cells from growing over the past few decades, says Church, is early detection.
“Many types of cancer, if you detect them early, cannot be fatal or even occur in the first place,” says Church. “It’s important that people stand up for themselves and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks of our medical system.”
Not all cancers are caused by lifestyle or environmental factors. Church says around 15 percent of people who get the disease have a genetic history of cancer.
“Some of us have a risk that has been passed on to us from the family we were born into,” he explains. “Therefore, those people who have high levels of cancer in their families should see their doctor and even be referred to a genetic counselor who can help them make decisions about what additional tests to do and how this risk will be communicated to other family members can. This is a way for people at genetic risk of cancer to deal with it. “
There are a handful of cancers. Church said all humans, regardless of genetics, must be screened throughout their lives.
“Everyone should be screened for colon cancer as soon as they’re 45 years old,” says Church. “All women between the ages of 21 and 65 should be screened for cervical cancer. The HPV vaccination almost eliminates the risk of cervical cancer. Women who are 40 years old should speak to their doctor about mammography screening, and then women over 45 should be screened annually. “
“Finally, we learned that you can be screened for lung cancer with special x-rays,” Church added. “It’s very quick, it’s very simple, and it can detect very small types of lung cancers before they become incurable and reduce lung cancer mortality by about 20 percent.”
Church says he is encouraged by cancer statistics compiled by the government and the American Cancer Society, which show that cancer rates in the US are falling every year.
“They’re falling, at least in part, because of our efforts to screen and prevent cancer,” says Church. “We have more research and better treatments, but most of it comes from better screening and prevention efforts like diet and exercise.”
“Be sure to talk to your doctor about ways you can reduce your risk of cancer and improve your overall health,” says Church. “When you’re of a certain age you should get a checkup and hopefully we can tame this monster.”
For more information on cancer prevention, visit the American Cancer Society website.