Cancer is complicated. There are over 200 known types, and some variants are more treatable than others. Although medical science has been making leaps and bounds in chemotherapy treatment, and there are huge associated funding and research campaigns dedicated to this, prevention – if possible – is inarguably the best course of action.
With this in mind, a new study published in the journal JAMA Oncology underscores just how small lifestyle changes could reduce a person’s risk of getting several types of cancer. Although there are many intertwined factors at play, the two researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston have outlined how Americans could dramatically reduce the number of cancer-related deaths by doing just four things.
For their study, cancers classified as carcinomas are considered – which includes all cancers except skin, brain, lymphatic, hematologic and nonfatal prostate variants – and compared to the plethora of health-based lifestyle choices people make. As it turns out, if each and every American adult quit smoking, reduced their alcohol intake, maintained a healthy weight, and did a little exercise each week, the number of new cancer diagnoses will be reduced by 40 to 70 percent.
“Cancer is preventable. In fact, most cancer is preventable – with estimates as high as 80% to 90% for smoking-related cancers,” Graham Colditz, the Harvard Chan School adjunct professor of epidemiology, said in a co-authored accompanying editorial. “Our challenge now is to act on this knowledge. We have a history of long delays from discovery to translating knowledge into practice.”
Cutting out smoking would dramatically reduce your risk of getting several cancers. Pisit Kollplukpol/Shutterstock
Around 600,000 Americans this year will die due to untreatable cancer, and more than 1.6 million will be newly diagnosed. Although some of these may be the result of bad luck, many are preventable, but coming up with a definitive list of preventative measures for something as multifaceted as cancer isn’t easy.
The two researchers painstakingly scoured through studies linking health behaviors and cancer rates, and poured through reams of data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program. As expected, the ability of people to avoid cancer types varied depending on not just their lifestyles, but their genders and the type of cancer being considered.
Men and women, totaling nearly 136,000 Caucasian individuals, were considered (other ethnic groups were not included in this study). They were said to have a healthy lifestyle pattern if they hadn’t smoked for at least 5 years, they had moderate-to-none alcohol consumption (no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two for men), they had a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 27.5, and they had weekly aerobic physical activity of at least 150 moderate-intensity minutes.
If all four categories were met, the participants were categorized as “low-risk,” otherwise they were in the “high-risk” group. By analyzing the cancer incidence and mortality rates of the individuals in these groups, and comparing this data to the U.S. population as a whole, the proportions of cancers within the high-risk group that could be prevented could be estimated.
Some cancers are more likely than others, and some are more treatable than others. Being healthy, however, almost always reduces the risk of cancer occuring to some degree. Creations/Shutterstock
The difference between the two groups was often stark. The risk of getting lung cancer, for example, was up to 82 percent and 78 percent greater in the high-risk groups of women and men, respectively. Sometimes, though, the difference was surprisingly small: women were only 4 percent more likely to get breast cancer in the high-risk group compared to the low-risk group.
Overall, though, a healthy lifestyle could cut the number of cancer deaths within the US population by up to 59 percent for women and 67 percent for men – a stark contrast to a now-infamous study published last year that suggested that most cancers can be attributable to bad luck, not lifestyle choices.