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
Health disparities are differences in rates and the effects of diseases between different populations. When it comes to many kinds of cancer, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that African Americans experience shorter survival times and higher death rates than people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Slightly better news is the fact that this health disparity has been shrinking and the combined cancer death rate has been declining among African Americans.
So why does this unsettling gap exist?
It’s a complex problem. Some factors at play aren’t easily changed: genes, income, employment, education and access to timely, high-quality health care, for example.
“Yet other factors matter, too,” said Dr. Jan Cook, medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. “By seeking preventive health care and making other healthy changes described below, people can lower their risks for many cancers.”
Which cancers are most common in African Americans?
The ACS estimates nearly 169,000 new cases of cancer and 65,400 cancer deaths will occur among African Americans this year. In men, the four most common forms of this varied disease are prostate, lung, colorectal and pancreatic cancers. For women, the top four are breast, lung, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
African American men and Jamaican men of African descent are far more vulnerable to prostate cancer than men from any other backgrounds. Breast cancer often gets diagnosed at a more advanced stage in African American women than in white women, which can make it harder to treat. Still, it’s worth noting that lung cancer causes most cancer deaths in both sexes.
What healthy steps can I take to help prevent cancer?
Steps that lower cancer risks often help prevent heart disease, stroke and diabetes, too, and improve all-around health tremendously. Smoking plays a major role in cancer (see below). And roughly one-third of cancer deaths this year will stem from excess weight or obesity, inactivity or poor nutrition, according to the ACS. So healthy steps can make a big difference:
Screening tests check for cancer in people who don’t have obvious symptoms. These tests may use physical exams (for example, skin cancer or oral cancers); imaging technology like mammograms (for example, breast cancer); or laboratory tests on a sample of blood, urine or another substance (for example, prostate cancer).
No screening test is 100 percent accurate. Sometimes these tests capture people who do not have cancer (a false positive), and miss people who do have cancer (a false negative). So, if you ever do have a positive screening test result, your doctor will recommend follow-up tests to investigate further. That might mean having more imaging tests like an ultrasound or MRI to get a better look at a worrisome area. Or it might mean having a biopsy. During a biopsy, cells or tissue are removed and checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
Why are screening tests helpful? Catching cancer at an early stage before it has spread to other sites in the body usually makes it easier to treat. Two screening tests — colonoscopy for colorectal cancer and Pap tests for cervical cancer — actually help prevent cancer by allowing doctors to find and remove precancerous growths. Thus far, only screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers have proven to lower death rates.
Which screening tests are especially important to have and when to start cancer screening varies depending on your age, sex, racial and ethnic background and family history. Your health and lifestyle matter, too. Experts agree, for example, that all women age 50 and older should have an annual mammogram (breast X-ray). Yet some women could benefit from starting breast cancer screening earlier or possibly having additional imaging tests. Talk to your doctor about the best screening schedule for you.
Ask your doctor three questions: Which screening tests are important for you to have? When should you start? How often should you have these tests?
Tobacco will cause an estimated 171,600 cancer deaths this year. That doesn’t even cover heart disease, stroke, emphysema, asthma and other ailments to which tobacco contributes. See if your employer or community sponsors a free or low-fee program to help you quit. Check with your health plan and doctor, too. Or try the Somking Quit Line (1-877-448-7848 or www.smokefree.gov) for more information on quitting.
Check the scale
Aim for a healthy weight. Paring off 100 calories a day — that’s a few cookies or two-thirds of a sugar-sweetened soda — by eating less or exercising more can help you lose 10 pounds a year. See the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts website (www.ahealthyme.com) for diet and exercise information.
Bounding through life lessens the likelihood of obesity and certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer. Encourage children and teens to engage in moderate to vigorous activities an hour a day at least five days a week. Adults should rack up 30-60 minutes a day at least five days a week.
The ACS recommends varied, colorful vegetables and fruit (at least fivedaily servings), whole grains (whole wheat, oatmeal and more), and balancing calories in with calories out to maintain a healthy weight. Limit red or processed meats, such as beef, cold cuts and hot dogs.
Watch alcoholic beverages
Overuse of alcohol contributes to liver, breast and oral cancers. Limit alcohol to two drinks or less for men, one drink or less for women, per day.