Can cancer really be prevented? Well, hear it from an oncologist

Updated on:4 February 2020, 12:00pm IST
World Cancer Day: While making healthy selections at the grocery store cannot guarantee cancer prevention, these measures may reduce the risk.
Dr Rohan Khandelwal
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Cancer can be quite unpredictable and uncertain. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

The word cancer evokes fear, anxiety and uncertainty in individuals, and no one wants to encounter it in their life—either for themselves or their loved ones.

Some of the cancers that are increasingly being seen in women are breast, cervical, ovarian and endometrial cancer. Knowing about these cancers not only helps in early detection but also helps you make healthy lifestyle choices that can go a long way in reducing your risk.

Breast cancer
One of the areas that women are most concerned about is their breast health and the risk they face of getting breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among Indian women. In urban areas, one in 22 women are likely to develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Of these 50% may not survive.

While there is no confirmed way to prevent breast cancer, women can do several things that can lower their risk. There are factors such as heredity, age and the fact that you are female, which cannot be changed.

But research shows that lifestyle changes reduce the risk of breast cancer, even in women who are at high risk. Personal behaviour, such as healthy diet, weight management and exercise and other lifestyle-related factors such as decision or age to have children, breastfeeding can impact the risk profile of a woman.

how to prevent cancer
A healthy diet with can help reduce your breast cancer risk. Image caption: Shutterstock

To lower their risk, women should:

  • Limit the intake of alcohol
    Even the smallest intake increases the risk. So, the lesser one consumes, lower is the risk. Alcohol intake is also linked to other types of cancers.
  • Manage your weight
    Obesity increases a women’s risk profile, especially if the weight gain happens post menopause. Oestrogen is mainly produced by the ovaries before menopause. Post menopause, ovaries stop producing it and it starts being formed by the fatty tissue. Raised oestrogen levels increase the risk of breast cancer. Obesity can also lead to higher insulin levels in the body, which increase the risk. Hence, it is recommended to have healthy weight throughout life.
  • Do not smoke
    Research shows a link between smoking and breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women.
  • Exercise regularly
    Lack of physical activity increases the body weight, can cause inflammation, upset the hormones, and energy balance. Research shows brisk walking and strength training helps reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Have children at the right age
    Women who do not have children or have their first child after 30 have been known to be at a slightly higher risk.
  • Breastfeed
    Breastfeeding is known to reduce the risk slightly. It is believed that the longer you breastfeed, the more protected you are. However, research hasn’t yet clearly established what is the right duration of breastfeeding.
  • Limit the use of hormone-based birth control methods
    Birth control methods such as oral pills, IUDs etc. use hormones, which may increase the risk.

Cervical cancer
Certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) cause cervical cancer. The virus spreads through intimate unprotected sexual contact. However, factors such as smoking, obesity, and exposure to certain hormones also increase a woman’s risk of contracting cervical cancer.

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To lower your risk, HPV vaccination is recommended for girls and boys around 11-12 years of age. In fact, it should be administered to all persons upto 26 years who have not been vaccinated earlier. 

Ovarian Cancer
Women who become overweight in their early adulthood, have had an early onset of menses, have never been pregnant, have unexplained infertility, have not taken birth control pills, or who have entered menopause later may have an increased risk of ovarian/fallopian tube cancer.

Research shows that women who take oral contraceptives for 3 or more years are significantly (30% to 50%) less likely to develop ovarian/fallopian tube cancer. The decrease in risk may last for 30 years after a woman stops taking the pills. Also, the longer a woman breastfeeds, lower is her risk. The more full-term pregnancies a woman has had (borne children), lower is her risk.

Endometrial cancer
Endometrial cancer is a cancer of the endometrium (the inner lining of the uterus). An early onset of menstrual periods, late menopause, a history of infertility, or not having children can increase the risk, too.

All in all, this is what you should do to reduce your risk
To summarise, while there is no clear indication that cancer can be prevented—the following steps can reduce your risk of contracting cancer:

  • Maintain healthy body weight
  • Reduce intake of alcohol
  • Quit smoking
  • Build a regular exercise regime and stay active
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet

Last but not the least, know your and your family’s medical history to know your risk profile. And undertake regular screenings and health checks as per your doctor’s recommendation.

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Dr Rohan Khandelwal Dr Rohan Khandelwal

Dr Rohan is a breast and surgical oncologist at the CK Birla Hospital for Women