Cancer is one of the leading threats to the health of Canadians. It is the top cause of death in the country, accounting for more than 80,000 deaths (30% of all deaths) in 2017. In the same year, more than 200,000 Canadians were diagnosed with the disease and lung, colorectal, prostate or breast cancer accounted for about half of these cases.
While there is a growing number of older people in the population due to the “Baby Boomer generation” and the actual numbers of cancer cases are projected to rise over the coming decades (since cancer is more common in older people), there is some good news. Cancer rates – both for new cancers and cancer deaths – have been stable or declining for most types of cancer in the past 10 years. This is due in part to improved cancer therapies, more cancer screening programs, and prevention initiatives.
The good news doesn’t end there. People who have been diagnosed with cancer are now typically living longer. In fact, almost two-thirds of Canadians diagnosed with cancer will survive at least five years after their diagnosis. (In 2017, more than 800,000 Canadians were cancer survivors who were diagnosed during the previous decade.)
There’s even more reason to be optimistic about cancer: many cancers – between 40% and 60% - could be prevented, based on applying what we know now. Preventability estimates vary, with figures reflecting the prevalence of different risk factors in specific populations and research methodologies.
Based on current knowledge, only 5-10% of cancer overall is due to inherited genes. Other non-modifiable factors, such as age, sex, and health and reproductive history also account for a large proportion of cancers.
However, a much larger proportion of cancers can be attributed to specific modifiable risk factors.
Here are 10 things you can do to reduce your risks of cancer:
1. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, explore ways to quit. And if at first you don’t succeed in quitting, keep on trying. It’s the best thing you can do for your health and that of people around you.
In 2015, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) analyzed more than 160,000 cases of preventable cancers (about 40% of all cancer cases) in the United Kingdom, and tobacco accounted for the largest numbers of cancers by far. While the link between tobacco use and lung cancer is well-known, what may be less familiar is that smoking also increases the risk of many other cancers, including cancers of the head and neck, bladder, kidney, pancreas, cervix. Fortunately, smoking rates have decreased markedly in Canada from a prevalence above 50% in the 1960s to a national rate of 12% in 2016. Accordingly, lung cancer rates are beginning to decrease, demonstrating the preventability of this cancer.
2. Maintain a healthy body weight, eat a balanced diet high in fibre (especially found in fruits and vegetables and whole grains), and limit consumption of processed and red meats.
In the CRUK analysis, diet was assessed through low fibre and high intake of processed meat, both of which have been linked to colon cancer. In other studies, additional aspects of diet have also been linked with increased cancer rates, including low consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This is significant because excess weight has been linked with many cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, colon, breast, endometrium, and kidney. Because obesity and overweight have increased dramatically in much of the world, including Canada, during the past several decades, rates of these cancers are expected to rise in coming years.
3. Protect your skin from excess sun exposure and don’t use tanning beds.
4. Protect yourself from exposure to dangerous chemicals and substances at worksites.
5. If you choose to drink alcohol, follow Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines, which include recommendations of fewer than 10 drinks per week for women and fewer than 15 for men.
6. Get immunized for HPV and hepatitis.
7. Avoid unnecessary radiation exposure.
8. Be physically active as much as possible as often as possible.
9. Encourage women to breastfeed their infants, if they are able to do so.
10. Consider the risks and benefits of using hormone replacement therapy and oral contraception.