Nothing about the importance of involving government, science, and advocates in the mission to create a cancer prevention agenda diminishes our responsibility as individuals. Each of us has a personal obligation to make the smartest decisions we can about our own health. Some basic guidelines are:
Make the behavior changes proven to lower cancer risk. We begin with the obvious. Avoid tobacco; maintain a healthy body weight; eat more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits; and exercise. Reduce your intake of added sugar, which appears not only in soft drinks, snacks, and desserts but in many other processed foods as well. These are major steps toward reducing cancer risk, but too many of us fail to take them consistently.
In general, I am much more enthusiastic about whole foods and good nutrition than I am about taking supplements or about other therapies purported to prevent cancer. Vitamin D and calcium are the exceptions, where the science for supplementing your diet with a pill is strong.
Minimize your exposure to environmental contaminants and medical radiation. We don’t yet know enough about the interaction of various chemicals or how much exposure over what period of time represents a real danger, but we do know that many products on the market contain known carcinogens. Buying organic foods, products packaged in BPA -free containers, cosmetics without parabens (widely used preservatives), and safer personal care and household cleaning products are good for your own health, and for the environment.
Discuss screening with your doctor. The colonoscopy is the gold standard for detecting colon cancer and its early warning signs, the Pap test has transformed the course of cervical cancer, and mammography remains the only tool we have to screen broad populations for breast cancer. Where the science is uncertain, become an informed consumer so that you and your doctor can make sound decisions about what screening tests are most suitable for your own health situation.
Take precautions in the sun. The sun’s ultraviolet light can damage the cells, leading to genetic mutations that can cause skin cancer. Use sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF ) of at least 30, wear a brimmed hat and clothing that covers your arms and legs, and use wrap-around sunglasses that provide maximum protection. It is also important to seek shade, especially midday, when the sun’s rays are strongest. Check your skin monthly for suspicious moles and lesions and take special care to protect your children, because sun damage early in life can show up decades later as skin cancer.
Get cancer-prevention vaccines. Ideally, all girls and boys should receive the three-dose human papillomavirus vaccine by age 11 or 12, according to the CDC. Since the vaccine has been on the market only since 2006, adolescents and young adults up to age 26 should also be vaccinated. The other cancer prophylactic is the hepatitis B vaccine, which helps to lower the risk of liver cancer.
Be part of the solution. Beyond actions designed to protect our health as individuals, there is much we can do as advocates. If your community still permits smoking in public places, does not provide safe opportunities to walk and play, or lacks options for purchasing fresh food, find out what nonprofit organizations are working on those issues in your area and sign up to help. If your school district allows the sale of soda and other sugar-rich foods lacking nutritional value in vending machines, get involved with the local PTA and insist that they be replaced with healthful alternatives.
If we can give young people the tools to lead healthier, more physically active lives, we can lower their cancer risk dramatically. Surely, we owe them no less. As the President’s Cancer Panel declared in its 2008–2009 report: “To a greater extent than many realize, individuals have the power to affect public policy.”
Excerpted with permission from A World Without Cancer: The Making of a New Cure and the Real Promise of Prevention by Margaret I. Cuomo, MD © 2013 by Margaret I. Cuomo. Published by Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books and ebooks are sold.