From maintaining a healthy weight to avoiding smoking and alcohol, risk-reducing choices and early detection offer the best outcomes
By Gail Kent
If you don’t want cancer, don’t get old.
The National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and many other trustworthy organizations say aging is the number one risk factor for getting a cancer diagnosis. While cancer can develop at any age, the incidence of cancer climbs as we age, with the median age of diagnosis at 66 years, according to the NCI.
“We think the reason for this is that, as we age, there are more and more chances of developing mutations in our DNA. And when mutations occur, they can disrupt genes that regulate cell division and growth, which can lead to the production of cancerous cells,” explains Dr. Gradon Nielsen, a medical oncologist at Virginia Oncology Associates. “The longer someone lives, the more they’re exposed to cancer-causing agents, such as ultraviolet light, radiation and environmental chemicals.”
But getting cancer isn’t inevitable. About half of all cancers can be prevented by making good lifestyle choices, Nielsen says.
“The main things people can do to decrease cancer risk is to eliminate all tobacco use, maintain a healthy weight and get vaccines, such as hepatitis and HPV vaccines,” Nielsen says. “Maintain a good level of physical activity—about 30 minutes of daily cardiovascular exercise up to five days a week.”
Exercise helps to maintain a healthy weight and also affects hormone production. “Insulin, growth hormones, prostaglandins and other hormones are impacted in a favorable way by regular exercise,” he says.
Diet is also important. “I strongly recommend people eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and try to minimize as much processed foods and red meat as they can,” he says. The data is not clear on whether following such a healthy diet itself is sufficient to prevent cancer, but such a diet helps a person maintain a healthy weight, which is the goal.
Alcohol use is controversial. In the past, there was research that attributed cardiovascular benefits to a small amount of alcohol, says Nielsen, but recent research has shown that even small amounts could be dangerous.
“The strongest recommendation comes from the American Cancer Society, which recommends complete avoidance of alcohol. This is because some studies have shown a trend toward increased cancer risk, even with light alcohol use. If someone smokes and drinks, they’re at much higher risk.”
Limiting ultraviolet exposure—sunlight—is really important, especially for children, Nielsen says. “It’s all cumulative. So, if you’re exposed starting at a young age and it continues for years, you’re putting yourself at a much higher risk for skin cancer. It’s extremely important for kids to wear sunscreen when they go outside and take precautions to avoid big nasty sunburns.” In addition to sunscreen, he advises limiting time outside and wearing hats and other protective clothing.
Some experts recommend getting some sun exposure daily to prevent vitamin D deficiencies, but Nielsen disagrees. “If someone gets their levels checked and they’re found to be low, I think it’s a better option to take it through a supplement or through their diet,” he says.
Getting cancer screenings at the recommended ages is key to detecting cancer early and increasing life expectancy, Nielsen says.
While there’s unlikely to be a “magic bullet” developed that will cure cancer, Nielsen says the disease will become more and more manageable, like diabetes and hypertension are now.
“I think what an optimistic future looks like is that we’ll be able to manage people’s cancers for many, many years, and we’ve already made progress with this. There have been many advances made in the last decade in terms of giving people a long-term chance of survival with cancer.”