Cancer Is Not Just Bad Luck

Cancer Is Not Just Bad Luck

A cancer study is stirring up good controversy, as cancer experts around the world rush to set the record straight about misleading headlines saying: “Cancer’s just bad luck.” The accurate, good-news message: At least half of all cancers can be avoided with do-it-yourself steps like watching your weight, getting the right tests and (of course) not smoking.

The flap started on New Year’s Day, with a Johns Hopkins University study that tried to explain why some body parts are more cancer-prone than others. The researchers concluded that some body tissues contain more fast-reproducing stem cells than others. The more these cells divide, the greater the risk for genetic mutations that can lead to cancer. That explained 65% of the difference in cancer rates in different parts of the body—the “bad luck” mentioned in the study.

But it was widely misunderstood, leading to headlines proclaiming two-thirds of cancer cannot be prevented. That’s hogwash! Yes, cancer starts with unlucky genetic mutations. And sometimes, it progresses despite a healthy lifestyle. But for many types of cancer—including cancers of the colon, lungs, breast and prostate, the Big Four that affect the most people and cause the most deaths—the steps you take can help keep those mutations from morphing into cancer or stop the mutations from happening in the first place. An American Cancer Society study followed a half-million Americans for over 10 years and discovered that following cancer-fighting strategies reduced the odds for many cancers dramatically; for example it cuts the risk for colon cancer by up to 48%.

Another benefit of smart lifestyle choices: Much of the malignancy of cancer once it starts is determined by your choices, such as avoiding foods with added sugars or syrups and just walking regularly. And top cancer experts are shouting the “you can make a difference” message to the world. So, here’s how they, and we, say you can prevent and help control cancer:

Don’t smoke. “Nearly all lung cancer would be prevented if nobody smoked,” noted one Harvard School of Public Health dean in a Boston Globe op-ed about the study. If you’ve tried to quit before, try again. And again. Talk with your doc about crave-stopping medications, nicotine replacement products and counselling…then set a stop date.

Watch your weight; eat great proteins. Maintaining a healthy weight can cut your risk for cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, colon and rectum, lining of the uterus, kidneys, breast, ovaries, prostate and gallbladder. And as Dr. Mike points out in his new book This is YOUR Do-Over, eating more healthy protein, such as fish, skinless chicken, turkey, beans and nuts, helps build muscle and is good for getting rid of inflammatory body fat that increases cancer risk. Next, avoid all deli meats—they’re usually highly processed with harmful chemicals—and red meat, pork and egg yolks. Red meat contains saturated fats and the amino acid carnitine. If you consume more than four ounces of red meat or one egg yolk a week, or a combo, your gut bacteria change to produce trimethylamine (TMA), which your liver turns into inflammatory compounds like trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which may be more likely to promote cancer than even cigarettes.

Get the tests you need. Mammograms, pelvic exams, colon checks, skin screening, prostate-cancer checks (if you and your doc agree they’re right for you) can find pre-cancerous tissue and cancers in early, more treatable stages.

Say yes to cancer vaccines. Rates of liver cancer have fallen thanks to childhood vaccination for hepatitis B. And the new HPV vaccine for teens and young adults could prevent an estimated 21 million cancers (including cancers of the cervix, anus and vagina). Yet 42% of teen girls and 65% of teen boys are missing out.

Slather on the sunscreen. The American Cancer Society notes that protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful UV rays can reduce your risk for the deadliest  skin cancer, melanoma, by 50%.

Medically reviewed in July 2019.

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