Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US and is the disease that Americans fear the most. But it might also be the disease that we have the most misconceptions about. What we do and how we live has a greater impact on cancer than most people would believe.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), Americans are more prone to blame cancer on factors they do not control like genetics and industrial pollution, or additives and GMOs in food. While it’s true that some cancers have a strong genetic contribution, “cancer genes” such as the BCRA1 or BCRA2 cause about 5-10% of cancers, so 90-95% of cancers occur in people who do not have a genetic predisposition. If we are worried about causes we can’t control or factors that have little impact on risk, then we won’t focus on the things that can really make a difference.
The AICR estimates that 1/3 of the most common cases of cancer in the US could be prevented if Americans moved more, weighed less and ate better. Add not smoking to the list and nearly 1/2 of cancers could be prevented.
In a recent survey, Tobacco was appropriately listed as the #1 recognized risk factor for cancer, but Overweight/Obesity was way down the list at #15. That is in spite of the fact that according to AICR, after not smoking, being at a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do to prevent cancer. While obesity is the second most important risk factor, only 50% of Americans are aware of the obesity-cancer link.
Overweight and obesity increases the risk of at least 11 cancers including colorectal cancer, post-menopausal breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer. The AICR estimates that excess body fat is the cause of approximately 132,800 cancer cases each year in the US and a cause for 20% of all cancer related deaths. In all, avoiding weight gain will prevent development of many cancers, and losing weight may lower the risk as well. Research is limited, but according to the American Cancer Society, evidence is growing that weight loss may reduce the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer and more aggressive forms of prostate cancer. A moderate weight loss of 3-5% of a person’s body weight (6-10 lbs. for someone 200 lbs.) would likely be enough to reduce the risk.
While we still have much to learn about the link between weight loss and cancer risk, people who are overweight or obese should be encouraged and supported as they try to lose weight. Whether your motivation is to reduce cancer risk or to live a healthy lifestyle, let’s focus on the little things that can make a big difference.