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Cancer - What You Need To Know

Cancer – a six letter word that is the cause of devastation and heartache for over a million people each year. In 2019 alone, 1,752,735 people were diagnosed with cancer according to the CDC.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is when normal cells transform into tumor cells in a multistage process that generally progresses from a pre-cancerous legion to a malignant tumor. This happens due to interactions between an individual’s genetic makeup and three external agents such as:

Physical carcinogens such as ultraviolet and ionizing radiation

  • Ex. Tanning beds, Mercury vapor lighting (often found in stadiums and school gyms), some halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent lights

Chemical Carcinogens

  • Ex. Asbestos, components of tobacco smoke, alcohol, aflatoxin (family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as corn, peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts), and arsenic (organically found in fish and shellfish).

Biological carcinogens

  • Ex. Infections from certain viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

Risk Factors

cancer risks, increased risk

There are certain activities that can increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer such as:

  • Tobacco use

  • Alcohol consumption

  • Unhealthy diet

  • Physical inactivity

  • Air pollution

Unfortunately, some chronic infections are also risk factors for cancer (this is especially an issue in low-middle income areas due to education and access to healthcare services). Ind fact, approximately 13% of 2018 globally diagnosed cancers were attributed to carcinogenic infections including Heliobacter pylori, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B&C and Epstein-Barr Virus.

Individuals diagnosed with HIV viruses are a staggering 6 times more likely to develop cervical cancer and are also at an increased risk of developing select other cancers such as Kaposi Sarcoma (a cancer that develops from the cells that line the lymph or blood vessels).

According to the CDC, the most common types of cancer are breast, lung, colorectal (colon), and cervical.

Prevention & Screening

Cancer prevention, prevention

On a more positive note, currently between 30% and 50% of cancers can be prevented by avoiding risk factors and implementing prevention strategies that are backed by research and evidence produced by vigorous scientific testing.

While preventing cancer may seem like a daunting task, there are small steps individuals can take daily that will help reduce their risks of developing cancer such as:

  • Avoiding or reducing consumption of alcohol

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Participating in physical activity on a regular basis

  • Eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables

  • Not using tobacco

  • Minimizing occupational (work related) exposure to ionizing radiation

  • Reducing exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution, including radon – a radioactive gas produced from the natural decay of uranium, which can accumulate in building such as homes, schools and workplaces.

  • Ensuring safe and appropriate use of radiation in health care (for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes)

  • Avoiding ultraviolet radiation exposure – which primarily results from exposure to the sun and artificial tanning devices. And ensuring that proper protection is used when out in the sun (i.e. clothing, sunscreen, hats, etc.)

Cancer screening, breast cancer screening, cervical cancer screening

Individuals can take control of their health and the fight against cancer by receiving recommended cancer screenings from their primary health care provider. These screenings are crucial for early detection and treatment of cancers, which can increase the likelihood of positive outcomes post diagnosis.

Breast Cancer Screenings

  • Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Women ages 50-74 are advised to receive a mammogram every 2 years if they are at average risk for breast cancer. and sometimes more often depending on family history and other factors. Women who are 40-49 years old are encouraged to talk to their primary care provider about when and how often they should receive a mammogram.

Cervical Cancer

  • The Pap test can find abnormal cells in the cervix which may turn into cancer. The HPV test looks for the virus HPV that can cause these cell changes. Pap tests can also find cervical cancer very early when the chance of being cured is very high.

Colorectal (colon) Cancer

  • Colorectal cancer commonly develops from precancerous polyps (abnormal growths) in the colon or rectum. Screenings tests can find precancerous polyps so that they can be removed before they develop into cancer. Screenings tests can also find colorectal cancer early when treatment is most effective.

Lung Cancer

  • The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly lung cancer screening with low-dose computed tomography (LCDT) for people with a history of heavy smoking, who smoke now or have quit within the last 15 years and are between 50 and 80 years old.

The word cancer can cause fear and anxiety in almost anyone, whether it be related to their own health or the health of a loved one. Knowing and understanding these preventative measures against cancer and receiving recommended annual cancer screenings can help fight that fear and anxiety and give individuals the tools to confidently make decisions that will positively affect their health and well-being.

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