It seems like these days we find out a new thing that gives us cancer almost daily. It’s like everything is a carcinogen! Honestly, and I’m embarrassed to say it, but I don’t really understand what cancer is. What are the best things I can do to avoid getting cancer later in life? 

I’d like to start by saying that fear is a prominent marketing tactic.  If you fear something, I recommend you learn as much as you can about it.

Here’s a (very basic) education of what research says about cancer:

  • Cancer is not a single disease but a group of related diseases.  The common activity these diseases share is an uncontrolled cell division (multiplies) that spreads into surrounding tissues.  Normal healthy cells grow and divide as needed and when they reach a certain age or become damaged, they die in an orderly and controlled process.  With cancer, this process is interrupted.  This can lead to a buildup of damaged cells that forms a growth called a tumor.
  • In the digestive system, the tumor can create a blockage that prevents nutrient absorption.  In the lungs, the blockage can lead to the lung collapsing which deprives you of oxygen.  In the bones, it can affect the calcium balance of the body which alone can become fatal.  Bone marrow is where blood cells are formed.  Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body so if the red blood cells’ production is affected, you will be deprived of oxygen.  White blood cells are responsible for providing immune system support, so affecting their production will leave us less capable of fighting off infection.  Platelets (responsible for blood clotting) are also produced in the bone marrow and without them the risk of abnormal bleeding is increased.  When deprived of oxygen, nutrients, and immune response, the risk and severity of infection is greatly increased.

Alright, so we now have a very basic understanding of what cancer is and how it can kill us. 

Now onto what we know about causes of cancer.

  • Smoking is THE LEADING cause of the following types of cancer: acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), bladder, esophageal, kidney, lung, oral cavity, pancreatic, and stomach.  That’s a whole lot of different cancer types and locations. 
  • Also, secondhand tobacco smoke has been linked to cancer (thanks for the cancer, Phyllis).  So first step: quit smoking. 
  • There are viral and bacterial infections that can increase your risk for cancer: HPV, Hepatitis B and C, Epstein-Barr, and Helicobacter pylori.  There are vaccines available for Hepatitis B and HPV. 
  • Radiation is another concern.  UV from sunlight and ionizing from medical tests (x-rays, CT scans, etc.) are known causes of cancer. 
  • Even though cell phones took a hit for “causing cancer” there isn’t legitimate research to prove it.  Cancer is the result of genetic mutation; cell phones emit a type of low-frequency energy that doesn’t damage genes. 
  • Alcohol is linked to oral, esophageal, breast, and colorectal cancers.  I’d like to circle back to smoking and clarify.
  • Being “the leading cause” and being “linked to an increased risk” are vastly different definitions.  Put down the cigarettes! 
  • Obesity is linked to breast, colorectal, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, and pancreatic cancers. 
  • People who are physically active have a lower risk of certain cancers when compared to those who are not. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t substantial studies to support vitamin or dietary supplement prevention measures.  There are some studies that suggest nonstarchy vegetables and fruits may protect against cancer but further investigation is required.  Researchers are also looking into the ketogenic diet and its effect on cancer risk and treatment.

In a nutshell: quit smoking, drink (or don’t) alcohol with moderation, eat your whole grains and leafy greens, and take a few yoga classes.  Only 5-10% of cancer cases are linked to genetic inheritance so the remaining 90-95% is up to you.

Author: Tony Scartozzi

Tony Scartozzi was born and raised in a small town in Eastern Washington. After moving to Seattle in 2001, he attended Bastyr University and graduated with a degree in Nutrition. Driven by his passion for public health, his career has spanned the nonprofit sector, senior housing resources, food service training, and now works for a nutraceutical company that produces market-leading plant extracts used for supplemental health. Observing the severe disparity between advertisement spin and research-based knowledge, Tony has spent many years trying to identify and reconcile the difference. With Tony’s parents’ age beginning to show, his desire to investigate health-related topics has become a very personal one.

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