by Eduardo Gonzales, MD
Q: What causes cancers? What can people do on a daily basis to prevent cancer?
A: Cancer occurs when a cell in an organ in the body, either spontaneously or in response to the presence of a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen), transforms (mutates) into an abnormal (cancer) cell that does not perform its assigned function and then proliferates rapidly. In time, the cell’s progenies will form a mass or tumor that displaces the normal cells in the organ that they occupy; and, invade adjacent and distant organs where they likewise displace the normal cells. Eventually, one or several organs that the cancer cells have invaded will fail and the person dies.
Cancers result from a very complex and still not well understood interaction among a variety of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. We cannot totally prevent cancers because it is not yet possible to modify our genes, but we can minimize our risk of developing one by adopting lifestyle practices that will enable us to avoid not only carcinogens but other factors that contribute to the development of cancers. Experts estimate that more than a third of cancers can be prevented by doing certain things on a daily basis.
The most important of these lifestyle practices is non-smoking. The evidence is incontrovertible, smoking causes lung and a host of other cancers—mouth and throat, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, kidney, urinary bladder, prostate (in men) and cervix (in women).
The other things you and other people can do are listed below. I culled these pointers from the “Recommendations for Cancer Prevention” that was released by the World Cancer Research Fund in November 2007. The recommendations were endorsed by an expert panel after reviewing over 22,000 scientific studies.
- Maintain an ideal body weight. Scientists believe that, after non-smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing one can do to prevent cancer. Excess body weight is associated with cancers of the bowel, esophagus, pancreas, kidney, uterus, breast and gallbladder.
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day. Evidently, regular physical activity is not only good for the heart, it also prevents cancer. Physical activity is anything that gets your body moving. It is activity that does not have to be done in the gym. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, doing household chores regularly, walking or biking when going to and from the neighborhood grocery instead of driving, etc., will do as long as the activities lead to palpable physical exertion and add up to more than 30 minutes per day.
- Watch your diet: To help maintain your body weight, which will reduce your risk for cancer, limit your consumption of energy-dense foods (foods high in fats and/or added sugars) and avoid sugary drinks and instead eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and pulses such as beans; limit your consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats—these foods are associated with cancer of the colon; and, limit your consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt because these foods increase your risk for stomach cancer.
- Limit alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women a day.
- Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that food supplements like fish oil, vitamin E, etc. increase the risk for cancers. To prevent cancer, partake of a balanced diet with a variety of foods rather than take supplements.
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