While you’ve probably been deeply affected by the cancer diagnosis of a friend or a family member (39.6% of people in the US will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime), chances are you’re not thinking too much about getting cancer yourself. Considering your own current or future cancer risk can get easily lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life, especially for younger women who are in the thick of building families and careers. Despite research findings that many Americans believe that developing cancer is something out of their control, experts say becoming aware of your cancer risk factors now can help you become seriously healthier both today and in the future.
So, how can you learn about your own risk factors and mitigate them? We asked Shikha Jain, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, for her expert suggestions.
Consider a clean lifestyle: We all know that bad habits like smoking or tanning can up our risks of cancer. But did you know that other unhealthy habits can play a role, too? Obesity is a risk factor for multiple cancers, says Dr. Jain. Alcohol, too, can increase your cancer risk. While a beer or two every now and then likely won’t make much of a difference, binge drinking regularly will. Dr Jain says alcohol can increase the risk of several cancers, including liver, breast, and gastrointestinal cancers.
A healthy diet can also help a lot, lowering your risk of obesity, and some research shows that foods high in fiber (like fruits and vegetables) can lower risk, too. Dr. Jain suggests “limiting intake of processed foods, eating a well balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, and limiting alcohol intake (no more than one drink per day for women).”
Know your family history: Most doctor’s office visits include a lengthy intake form where you have to provide a full family health history. And there’s good reason for this practice. The health issues that have affected your family in the past may play a role in your future, too. So ask around at your next family gathering. And don’t forget anyone — diseases of cousins and aunts and uncles count, too.
While most people with well-known genetic mutations (like the BRCA gene mutation, the one that caused Angelina Jolie to get a preventative mastectomy and oophorectomy) are aware of their likelihood of developing certain diseases, everyone should become very familiar with the illnesses in their family tree. Dr. Jain adds: “Another family cancer syndrome is known as Lynch Syndrome or HNPCC (Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer). Families who have this genetic condition are at risk for a range of cancers.” This is why knowing your family history can be very important. If you do have a family history, you might ask to be screened or tested at an earlier age or in a more comprehensive way than the general population.
And if you become aware of any gene mutations that can cause a propensity for cancers, you will want to meet with a genetic counselor, a doctor specially-trained in helping you understand and manage any inherited cancer risk you might have. They can help you navigate testing and medical care and provide emotional and mental support, too.
Get screened: Screening for cancer usually starts later in life (for women, mammograms every year starting at age 45, colon cancer screenings at 50). Of course, if you have a family history of breast or colon cancer, you may start earlier.
But you’ve likely already participated in a form of cancer screening: a Pap smear. Paps are now recommended every three years to test for cervical abnormalities and HPV (human papilloma virus), some strains of which are linked to cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile and throat and tongue cancers. About 80% of sexually-active people will get HPV at some point in their reproductive lives, but don’t freak out — there are about 150 strains of HPV, many of which are harmless.
Testing for HPV should begin when you’re 21, whether or not you’ve had the HPV vaccine. You can also ask for co-testing, which is when a provider takes a a cell sample from the cervix specifically to check for the virus — it’s often done at the same time as a Pap smear (which also tests for other cervical abnormalities not related to HPV). Consider getting the HPV vaccine (Gardasil), too, as Dr. Jain explains, “Both the HPV vaccine and vaccination against Hepatitis B have been found to prevent cancers. The HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer and other cancers, and the hepatitis B vaccine reduces the risk of liver cancer.”
If you have a compromised immune system (usually because of previous conditions or medications), you might also want to be screened for the Epstein-Barr virus (commonly known as mononucleosis), as well. Dr. Jain says, “Many people have this virus from a childhood illness. In the majority of people, it will not result in a cancer. We typically do not test or screen for EBV in people unless they are at higher risk for developing a cancer from EBV (for example, immunosuppressed patients or patients undergoing a transplant).”
While cancer is by no means completely preventable, it’s totally possible to help your health down the road by taking action today. Work towards living a healthy lifestyle and become an informed participant in all of your medical care. Eat well, exercise, and ask lots of questions, both of your family and of your medical providers.