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February 4th is World Cancer Day, an international event aimed at spreading awareness of cancer. This might seem an unusual goal - who doesn't know about cancer? Most of you reading this article have probably known someone who has endured cancer, and many of you have been through it yourself. But just because cancer is a well-known disease doesn't mean that general education about it is complete. Many risk factors are not well understood, and there are many less common forms of cancer that people don't know about. A strong general knowledge of cancer improves early detection and ultimately saves lives.
Understanding cancer in the United States comes in part from the thorough statistics kept by organizations like the Center for Disease Control and American Cancer Society. They give a strong idea of the prevalence of cancer in the nation:
These statistics are intimidating, but they don't tell the entire story. Improved treatment options and early detection rates, as well as a significant decline in smoking, have all reduced the cancer death rate.
Most importantly, these statistics are not the peak of cancer reduction or prevention. It's estimated by the Harvard School of Public Health and ACA that anywhere from 60-75% of American cancer deaths can be prevented. World Cancer Day is about spreading awareness of how this can be done.
Early detection is key to treating cancer, and one of the reasons that cancer survival rates have increased. Awareness of changes in your body and bodily functions is a great way to protect yourself. A rough guide regarding traits to look out for was developed by the ACA years ago:
Many of these traits could be symptoms of something benign, and there are other potential cancer symptoms (unexplained fatigue or weight loss, for example), but the list is a reminder to listen to your body and pay careful attention to its changes.
Cancer has many potential risk factors that range from behaviors to genetic disposition. And many of these risk factors can be managed, reducing the potential of developing cancer.
Regular Examination: This is a major source of prevention, and it's one that's easy to adopt. Regular self-exams and screenings for common cancers, such as skin, colon, cervical, and breast cancer, increase the chances of discovering and treating cancer early, when treatment is most likely to be successful. Pay special attention to the ages when certain screenings are recommended; some cancers, such as colon or prostate cancer, increase in incidence with age, and early screening is important.
Tobacco Use: This one is probably obvious. Smoking is linked to many types of cancer (lung, mouth, throat, larynx, pancreas, bladder, cervix, and kidney), as is chewing tobacco and secondhand smoke. Cancer rates reached their peak in 1991 largely due to high rates of lung cancer from widespread smoking. Avoiding tobacco use may eliminate up to 30% of cancer deaths. If you're having trouble quitting, consult a medical professional, who can suggest and prescribe products that make it easier.
Dietary Choices: Certain foods increase or reduce your risk of cancer, especially forms like colorectal cancer that involve the digestive tract. Some changes you can make:
Physical Activity: A healthy diet is a major component of both good health and avoiding cancer, but physical activity is equally important. Not only does it reduce obesity, which increases the risk of many forms of cancer, but it can reduce some cancer risks on its own.
Sun Protection: Overexposure to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer, one of the most common but most preventable forms.
Get Vaccinated: Certain vaccinations will help you prevent cancers associated with certain diseases. Vaccinations exist for Hepatitis B, which can lead to liver cancer, and Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical and other genital cancers, as well as squamous cell cancers of the head and neck.