A risk factor is a characteristic that is likely to increase your chance of a particular disease. Having a risk factor does not mean you will get the disease. Likewise, not having one is not a guarantee against it. Some risk factors for cancer are beyond a person’s control, while others can be influenced by behavior and lifestyle.
Factors you can control
• Smoking and tobacco use
• Inactivity and weight
• Unhealthy diet
• Alcohol consumption
Factors beyond your control
• Personal or family history of cancer
• Genetics/inherited mutations
Nadine Jackson McCleary, M.D., M.P.H. Medical Oncologist
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Yes. Everyone should check their skin once a month and request a yearly exam by a doctor. Although minorities have a lower incidence of skin cancer, they are not exempt. In particular, blacks need to examine carefully their toenails, fingernails, the palms of their hands and soles of their feet — typical locations for a rare but aggressive form of melanoma that occurs more frequently in darker skinned people.
2. If a person has no history of cancer in his or her family, is it still necessary to undergo screening tests?
Yes it is. Although some cancers, such as breast and colon, can occur frequently in families, those without a familial history are not necessarily immune. You should follow a screening schedule appropriate for your age and gender established for you by your doctor.
3. Why does healthy eating decrease the risk of cancer?
Cells in the body can be damaged by unstable molecules called free radicals. The damage can cause a mutation, which in turn can result in cancer. Plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain antioxidants called phytochemicals, which stabilize the free radicals, thereby reducing the risk of cancer.
4. Since there are differences of opinion in the value of screening for prostate cancer, should black men forgo PSAs, the blood test that can help to detect prostate cancer?
To date, according to experts, studies have not substantially proven that prostate-specific antigens, or PSAs, save lives. Some men get prostate cancer, live several years and die from another cause. That is why the current medical advice is to discuss with men the advantages and disadvantages of the test. That being said, black men have the highest incidence and death rates from prostate cancer than any other group. In addition, they get it at a younger age and are often afflicted with more aggressive disease. For these reasons black men aged 40-45 should discuss screening with a doctor.
5. Does smoking a pipe or cigar instead of cigarettes reduce the risk of cancer?
No. Tobacco of any kind can increase the risk of cancer. All tobacco, including snuff or smokeless tobacco contains carcinogens, which are cancer-causing agents.
6. Does a family history of breast or ovarian cancer always come from the mother’s side of the family?
A genetic mutation that often results in breast or ovarian cancer can come from your father as well as your mother. The gender of the source of the mutation is not a factor. However, the recipient is. Daughters who inherit the mutation from either parent have an increased risk of either or both types of cancer.
7. Should males as well as females be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus responsible for cervical cancer and genital warts?
Since HPV was found to cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, vaccination against the virus is recommended for females aged 9-26. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not as yet recommend vaccination for boys although it has been found to combat genital warts. With an increase in head and neck cancer as well as anal cancer caused by HPV, however, the organization’s position may change in the future. Until then parents of boys can decide if the vaccine Gardasil is right for their sons by talking with their sons’ health care providers.
8. Why are colonoscopies the preferred screening test for blacks?
It has been found that blacks have a higher risk of polyps — predecessors of cancer — on the right side of the colon. Colonoscopy is the only screening test for colon cancer that examines the entire colon.
9. If a person has several risk factors for a particular type of cancer, does that mean that he or she will get the disease?
Not necessarily. Having a risk, or even several risk factors for cancer, does not mean you will get it. Likewise, not having the risk is not foolproof protection. Because the incidence of cancers is not predictable, it is wise to follow a screening schedule to find cancers early and follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce its risk.
10. Do only women get breast cancer?
No. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 2,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and 450 will die from the disease.