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How can I prevent cancer?

Sometimes cancer can be prevented. Looking at the whole country, it is quite possible that more than half of cancer deaths could be prevented—if no one used tobacco and if everyone took steps to improve their health. Of course, that is a big "if."

But is there a way to guarantee that you or your loved ones won't get cancer? So far, nothing has been found that is proven to prevent every case of cancer. As of 2008, there are ways to prevent many cases of cancer in large groups of people. And there are things you can do as an individual that might reduce your chances of getting cancer. If cancer does develop, doctors also use early detection tests to improve the odds that it will be found at an early stage when it is easier to treat. But, as of today, even the best methods of reducing your chances of getting cancer (called cancer risk reduction) cannot prevent all cancers.

Dr. Kelly Traver
Internist

The ways of preventing cancer are:

Cervical cancer Pap smears should start at the age of 21 or within three years from the onset of sexual activity, whichever comes first. The recommended frequency for Pap smears is every one to three years. Pap smears can be discontinued at the age of around 70 if the previous three Pap smears have been completely normal.

Breast cancer mammograms should start at the age of 40 for most women and are recommended yearly. Baseline mammograms are no longer performed at the age of 35 because breasts are still so dense at this age that it makes the interpretation of the mammogram too difficult.

Colon cancer colonoscopies are recommended for everyone starting at the age of 50. If the first colonoscopy is negative and there is no family history of colon cancer, screening once every 10 years is probably fine.

Prostate cancer is screened for by a prostate examination (palpation of the prostate by a rectal examination) and a blood test called prostate-specific antigen (PSA). Although guidelines vary, a prostate examination and a blood test are typically performed in men every year after the age of 50.

Skin cancer checks should be performed yearly at the time you have your physical examination to check for cancerous or precancerous lesions.

Some studies suggest that nearly two out of three people could avoid cancer by not smoking and eating a healthy diet that includes generous servings of fruits and vegetables and limits high fat foods.

Other suggestions to discourage cancer include:

  • Include physical activity in your daily routine
  • Limiting your use of alcohol
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Reduce environmental exposure to carcinogens
  • Use sunscreen when outside

Regular physical exams by your doctor and self-examination are critical to detecting cancer early. That is critically important. The sooner cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances for a cure. If your family has a history of cancer, discuss this with your doctor. Following this advice and see your doctor often. You will be well on your way to a healthy, cancer-free life.

Dr. Kathleen Wolin, ScD
Preventive Medicine Specialist

About half of cancers in the U.S. could likely be prevented through 8 lifestyle choices: maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, don't smoke, eat a healthy diet, drink alcohol in moderation or not at all, protect yourself from the sun, protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections and get screened. For a personalized look at what you can do or for more on preventing a specific cancer, visit www.yourdiseaserisk.wustl.edu.

Dr. David L. Katz, MD, MPH
Preventive Medicine Specialist

A 2009 study from Archives of Internal Medicine shows that focusing these four areas reduces the risk of all chronic diseases, including cancer, by 80 percent:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables regularly.
  • Be moderately active.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Control weight.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.