HCN News & Notes

Baystate Physician Shares Advice for Lowering Cancer Risk

SPRINGFIELD — Your health doesn’t take a holiday. Especially when it comes to cancer.

It’s a new year, and many have resolved to make 2017 a healthier one. Losing weight. Eating healthy. Exercising more. All are popular new year’s resolutions. But when it comes to cancer, can it really be prevented?

Last year, the National Cancer Institute estimated that 1,658,370 new cases of cancer would be diagnosed in the U.S. and 589,430 people would die from the disease in 2016.

“There are many factors that play a role in the likelihood of developing cancer in your lifetime. Some of these risk factors are modifiable, such as quitting smoking or not becoming a sun worshipper. Others are out of your control, such as a family history of cancer. But there are things that you can do to reduce your personal chance of getting cancer,” said Dr. Wilson Mertens, vice president and medical director, Cancer Services for the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

“Of course, tobacco usage is the major avoidable cause of cancer and outweighs many other factors in our control,” he went on. “So, if you are using tobacco products, the first priority is to stop, and stop permanently. Your healthcare provider can help with aids that can assist in the quitting process. Alcohol intake is associated with a number of cancers, including breast and esophageal cancers.”

Mertens noted it is also important to avoid excess sun exposure. This is particularly important for young people, as the risk of melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer — appears to be highly impacted by sun exposure, especially with sunburns before adolescence. But older people continue to have increased risk for all skin cancers with ongoing exposure.

“So practice sun-smart behaviors, such as avoiding peak sunlight hours, seeking shade, and using sun blocking products,” he said.

Many cancers are associated with obesity, such as breast cancer, especially in older women, as well as uterine, kidney, esophagus, colon, and rectal cancers. While there is a clear relationship between body weight and cancer, the lower your body weight, then the lower your chances of cancer. Diet and exercise can help.

Exercise has been shown to be associated with lower cancer rates for breast, uterine, colon and rectum, and even lung cancer. The amount of exercise varies, but even moderate exercise — three to five hours of walking at an average pace each week — will lead to lower rates of breast and colorectal cancer, Mertens noted.

“As a society, we eat too few fruits and vegetables, with most Americans falling short of the long-recommended dietary guidelines from the National Cancer Institute,” he added.

Is it ever too late to benefit from lifestyle changes? “Any reduction in exposure to risk factors is valuable,” he explained. “For example, quitting smoking significantly reduces the risk of lung and other cancers over time, and even patients with advanced lung and head and neck cancer can enjoy significant survival benefits by discontinuing tobacco use. As a result, every effort should be made to quit tobacco use, to exercise more, to lose weight if overweight or obese, and to reduce your alcohol consumption. If you can only do one or two of these, then eliminating tobacco and exercising more are the most important.”

He admitted that making these lifestyle changes isn’t easy, “but even small changes can make a difference, which should help reinforce those new year’s resolutions.”