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Physicians Advise How to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer, Including Self Care

Learn what signs of cancer to be aware of and when to see a doctor, according to healthcare experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

In the last three decades cancer has become more treatable in many cases, but it's still a leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, "Cancer continues to be the second most common cause of death in the US, after heart disease. A total of 1.9 million new cancer cases and 609,360 deaths from cancer are expected to occur in the US in 2022, which is about 1,670 deaths a day." However the ASC states, "These statistics don't include either basal cell or squamous cell skin cancers because US cancer registries are not required to collect information on these cancers. These numbers also do not account for the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has likely had on cancer diagnoses and deaths because they are projections based on reported cases through 2018 and deaths through 2019."

There is some good news though. The ASC shares, "The risk of dying from cancer in the United States has decreased over the past 28 years according to annual statistics reported by the American Cancer Society (ACS). The cancer death rate for men and women combined fell 32% from its peak in 1991 to 2019, the most recent year for which data were available. Some of this drop appears to be related to an increase in the percentage of people with lung cancer who are living longer after diagnosis, partly because more people are being diagnosed at an early stage of the disease."

Beating cancer is not an easy journey and the odds are more favorable with early detection. Staying on top of annual screenings and routine doctor visits can be life-saving, but so are recognizing the signs. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share what to know about the disease and signs that indicate you have cancer. As always, please seek your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Cancer is Still so Deadly Even Though It's More Treatable Today

risk of cancer

Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 20 years of direct patient care experience tells us, "Cancer has become more treatable, but there are still few "cures" for many cancers. Incidence, the rate that cancer occurs, is still relatively stable. Cancer occurs for many reasons, including genetic risk factors, environmental exposure or lifestyle changes.

In addition, many Americans don't have adequate healthcare coverage due to the high cost of insurance and cancer treatment. Cancer medications and procedures can cost over six figures yearly, which few people can afford. Additionally, many cancers are misdiagnosed or diagnosed so late that few treatment options are available. In many ways, cancer patients are living longer and more fulfilling lives than they were ten or twenty years ago. Cancer treatments are improving, but the process from research to implementation is slow. With continued progress, we'll eventually see cancers become less deadly."


How Cancer Turns Incurable

Woman in her 30s sits by her living room window with a cup of tea and looks out contemplatively. She is a cancer survivor and is wearing a headscarf.

Debashish Bose MD PhD FACS Director of Surgical Oncology Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore MD explains, "Cancer kills people in a number of ways, which are related to how a cancer behaves. For example, blood cancers, like leukemia, may take over the bone marrow and prevent the generation of healthy cells, like red blood cells which carry oxygen to your tissues. Other cells that fight infections may go down to dangerously low levels and result in death from the inability to fight off external infectious agents, like viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Solid tumors have two main features of behavior that may contribute to mortality: local progression and metastasis.

Local progression may result in threats to critical structures like blood vessels or result in organ failure due to overwhelming growth of cancer in the organ in which it starts. Metastasis, the spread of cancers to distant sites, may result in failure of organs other than the site of origin. Metastatic disease also threatens life by causing body-wide dysfunction, resulting in weight loss due to the parasitic nature of cancer, trouble with healing, extreme fatigue, loss of appetite, etc. These effects are also possible without metastatic disease. Some solid tumors cause death due to acute issues like bleeding and obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract."


Misconceptions of Cancer

Radiologist looking at the MRI scan images.

Marchese says, "One misconception about cancer is that all types have similar treatments. For example, that "chemo" is the same for every cancer. No two cancers are alike, and every patient is different. Depending on cancer location, stage, and cell type, dozens of potential treatments exist. Doctors craft individual treatment plans that combine medications and procedures, such as surgery, to improve survival as much as possible."

The Mayo Clinic lists the following myths about cancer. 

"A positive attitude is all you need to beat cancer

Truth: There's no scientific proof that a positive attitude gives you an advantage in cancer treatment or improves your chance of being cured.

What a positive attitude can do is improve the quality of your life during cancer treatment and beyond. You may be more likely to stay active, maintain ties to family and friends, and continue social activities. In turn, this may enhance your feeling of well-being and help you find the strength to deal with your cancer.

If we can put a man on the moon, we should have cured cancer by now

Truth: Finding the cure for cancer is proving to be more complex than mastering the engineering and physics required for spaceflight.

Cancer actually includes a large group of diseases. Each person's cancer may have many different causes. Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, doctors still have much to learn about what triggers a cell to become cancerous and why some people who have cancer do better than others. In addition, cancer is a moving target. Cancer cells may continue to mutate and change during the course of the disease. This may lead to the cancer cells no longer responding to the chemotherapy drugs or radiation treatments that were given initially."


​​Signs of Cancer

Woman with prostate problem in front of toilet bowl. Lady with hands holding her crotch, People wants to pee - urinary incontinence concept

According to Marchese, "Cancer symptoms are often subtle and can mimic mild infections, such as the cold or flu. Be aware of changes to bowel or bladder habits, fevers, cough, new pain and changes in memory. Talk to your doctor about any new symptoms and keep a record of when they started and what makes the symptoms better or worse. The earlier a doctor detects cancer, the better. Talk to your doctor about potential screening if you have any new symptoms, even if they are not impacting your daily life. 

Always check in with your physician at the first sign of anything abnormal. Minor symptoms could be the first signs of cancer, whether it's a new cough, headaches, muscle pain or skin changes. Checking in with your doctor means they'll have a record of when symptoms began and know the right time to screen for cancer. The difference of a few weeks could mean fewer treatment options that could extend your life in the case of cancer."


How to Help Reduce the Risk of Cancer

Couple of female friends jogging on the city street under the city road overpass.They relaxing after jogging and making fun.Embracing each other. Walkers

Dr. Bose explains, "We get cancers as a result of multiple factors – genetics, environment, diet, physical condition, some behaviors, trauma, and the presence of some other diseases.  As with many diseases, it is not always possible to draw a line between any one of these factors and the development of a cancer. It is tempting for many people to link the development of a cancer to the presence of other chronic conditions, but these associations are difficult to prove. Overall, maintain a healthy weight, exercise, don't smoke, moderate alcohol intake, eat less red meat, eat more vegetables, and include mental health in your self care program. Comply with screening guidelines and advocate for your health maintenance with primary care providers."

Marchese says, "Reducing cancer risk includes knowing whether you have genetic risk factors and how to improve lifestyle choices. A diet with proper nutrition, rich in vitamins from vegetables and fruits, can alert your immune system to any abnormal cancer growth. You should also be aware of cancer risks in your environment, such as asbestos or radon, plus changes you can make in yourself, such as quitting smoking and drinking."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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