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Reducing Our Cancer Risk

What is the greatest risk factor for getting cancer?

Tobacco? Environmental pollution?

Try age. The longer we live, the more likely our chances that we’ll contract some form of cancer.

Since all of us grow older every day, there’s not much we can do about that risk. But what can we do to reduce risks from other factors?

For answers, I approached Barbara Boughton of El Cerrito. She is the co-author, with Dr. Michael Stefanek, of Reduce Your Cancer Risk: Twelve Steps to a Health­ier Life (Demos Health/ American Cancer Society, $16.95).

“It’s not entirely known why some people get cancer and others don’t,” Boughton told us. “Causes can be traced to lifestyle choices, sometimes to heredity and sometimes simply to bad luck.”

She has felt cancer’s cruel touch herself. She lost her mother to breast cancer and then, almost ten years later, her father died of lung cancer. Fair complected, she has had basal cell skin cancer herself and now religiously applies sunscreen and wears broad brimmed hats. “With lots of pancreatic, colon and skin cancer in my family, I looked into what I could do to reduce my risks. I checked with a genetic counselor. My own investigations led to the book.”

She suggests a dual approach to cancer prevention—risk assessment and risk reduction. In my case, due to some previous cancer treatments, doctors tell me I’m at greater risk for skin cancers than most men my age. That’s risk assessment. My risk reduction is getting head-to-toe examinations by a dermatologist every six months instead of every year.

Colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies (recommended for everyone over 50) merge risk assessment and prevention. If cancerous or precancerous polyps are detected, they’re usually removed as part of the screening procedure.

Assessment and prevention cannot always go together in the same procedure. However, assessment remains invaluable. Pap smears reduced the incidence of cervical cancer by 75% during the last half century.

Tobacco use remains the most significant lifestyle ink to developing cancer (and a host of other detrimental health conditions). Older smokers sometimes avoid quit­ting by claiming that they can’t turn back the clock, that the cigarettes they smoked 30 years ago, not this morn­ing’s smoke, will do them in. In fact, it’s never too late to quit smoking.

In her book, Boughton writes: “Just 2 weeks to 3 weeks after quitting, former smokers’ circulation improves, and their lung function increases, according to the American Cancer Society. One year after quitting, the risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half. And 10 years after quitting, a smoker’s chances of lung cancer also decrease by 50%. The risk of developing other can­cers, including mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, cervix and pancreatic cancer, is reduced substantially, too.”

Yes, cancer can run in families. However, you are more genetically at risk if the cancer runs in your imme­diate family (a sibling rather than a cousin), if the onset is before age 50 and if it is an unusual cancer (e.g., breast cancer in men). Whereas doctors may have been more tight-lipped in decades past about patients condition, Boughton found that death certificates were often explicit. She encourages people doing genetic risk assessments to check old death certificates.

Her father always suspected that his mother died of some female-related cancer. When Boughton got a copy of the death certificate from the city where she died, she dis­covered that her grandmother actually died from a uter­ine fibroid, “which meant no risk to me.”

Various websites and public charts guide us in assess­ing cancer risk. These assessments may help allay fears or, conversely, serve as alerts. Either way, Bough­ton suggests they be cautiously. “A woman who finds she has a breast cancer risk of say, 12% up to age 90, shouldn’t start skipping mammograms.”

Studies now confirm what health professionals have been preaching for years—a healthy lifestyle really is healthier. For example, we now know that post-meno­pausal breast cancer risk is reduced by one-third in women who maintain a sensible weight, who are physi­cally active four hours or more per week and who follow a healthy diet.

It’s easy to pack on the pounds as we get older. If you need inspiration for choosing salad over curly fries, consider that evidence increasingly links various cancers to obesity. Boughton points out that “the American Can­cer Society now states that three factors taken together—obesity, poor nutrition and physical inactivity—cause as many cancer deaths as tobacco use. If you can improve those areas even a little bit, you’re on your way to reducing your cancer risk.”

See you at the salad bar.

(Contact W.E. Reinka at

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