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How to Control Your Cancer Risk

Article date: April 14, 2009

While recent research has shown that racial disparity in cancer death rates is decreasing, minority groups continue to bear a greater cancer burden than whites. For many cancer types, racial and ethnic minorities are far more likely than whites to die from cancer and be diagnosed in advanced stages of disease, when the cancer is less treatable.

The reasons are complex, researchers say.

Social factors, differences in income and education, racial bias, and environmental deterrents all play a role. However, there are things you can do every day to help reduce your cancer risk or improve your chances of beating the disease if you do get it.

1. Get regular cancer screenings.

Regular screening tests can catch some cancers early, when they’re more treatable. In some cases, these tests can even prevent cancer from developing in the first place. Unfortunately, according to Society reports, many minority groups aren't getting screened.

A recent study of cancer in African Americans found that death rates continue to be higher for cancers that can be most affected by early detection and treatment, such as breast and colorectal cancer. “In the African-American population, there's far less utilization of screening. For example, in 2005, 44% of African Americans were screened for colorectal cancer, compared to 51% of whites. There's a real need for programs that address that disparity,” says Ahmedin Jemal, PhD, Department of Epidemiology and Surveillance Research, American Cancer Society, one of the authors of the report.

Keeping up-to-date on cancer screening tests saves lives. Talk with your doctor or nurse about the following screening guidelines.

Colon cancer: Testing can find precancerous polyps that can be removed – catching colon cancer before it starts. Men and women should be tested for colon cancer beginning at age 50, or earlier if they have a family history of the disease or certain other risk factors. Talk to your doctor about your history and ask which tests are right for you.

Breast cancer: Women 40 and older should get a mammogram and a breast exam by a doctor or nurse every year. Women in their 20s and 30s should have a breast exam about every 3 years. Women who are at higher risk of breast cancer because of family history or other factors should talk to their doctor about when to start screening and what other tests they may need.

Cervical cancer: Testing for cervical cancer should begin 3 years after a woman begins having sex, but no later than age 21. Women younger than 30 should have a Pap test every year or a liquid-based Pap test every 2 years. (Older women can often be screened less frequently.) These tests can find precancerous changes in the cervix so they can be treated before they turn into cancer.

2. Control your weight.

Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many cancers, including breast, colorectal, uterine, esophageal, and kidney. Unfortunately, many minority groups struggle with high obesity rates. For example, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 76% of African Americans are overweight and 46% are obese, compared to 66% and 33%, respectively, of whites.

You can control your weight by exercising regularly and eating more healthfully.

3. Exercise regularly.

Physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, prostate and colon cancer. It also reduces the risk of other serious disease like diabetes and heart disease. The Society recommends adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on 5 or more days a week; 45 minutes to an hour is ideal.

There are many ways to get much needed exercise, and not of all of them require a gym membership.

Walking: If your neighborhood has limited recreational opportunities, consider forming a neighborhood walk group. Walking requires no memberships, little equipment, and has incredible benefits. Regular walking can help you shed pounds; lower your blood pressure; reduce your risk of a heart attack, diabetes, and stroke; improve mood and sleep; alleviate stress; and strengthen muscles and joints.

Community centers: Many community centers, church recreation groups, and local high schools offer fitness, exercise, and weight-training classes.

4. Eat healthfully.

To eat better, follow the American Cancer Society's guidelines and keep track of how well you're doing in a food diary.

Try to eat at least 5 servings of vegetables (including legumes) and fruits each day. The more brightly colored the produce, the better – it's more likely to be packed with cancer-fighting, heart-healthy nutrients. And since fruits and veggies are usually low in calories, eating them regularly can help you control your weight.

Aim for at least 3 servings of whole grains each day. Eat oatmeal at breakfast, choose whole-wheat bread at lunch, or whip up brown rice at dinner instead of white.

Cutting back on processed and red meats may also help reduce the risk of colon and prostate cancers. And since those foods are typically high in saturated fat, eating less also helps lower your risk of heart disease.

Try writing down what and how much you eat and drink for a week and see where you can cut down on portion sizes, scale back on some not-so-healthy foods and drinks, or both.

5. Stop smoking.

Smoking damages nearly every organ in the human body, is linked to at least 15 different cancers, and accounts for some 30% of all cancer deaths.

Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your loved ones. To kick the habit for good, you need motivation, dependable support, and sound strategies. We can help. See our resource list.

6. Contact us.

The American Cancer Society offers many programs and services that can help you stay well, get well, find cures, and fight back.

Our Aconseje a su Amiga program encourages Latino women to get mammograms and Pap tests, and our Body & Soul program, co-sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, promotes healthy eating in African-American church groups. We also offer free health and cancer information in English, Spanish, and other languages.

Through our Patient Navigator program, we're helping newly-diagnosed cancer patients overcome significant barriers to care, such as lack of health insurance, confusion about proper testing and treatment, and distrust of the health system. The American Cancer Society has patient navigators in more than 120 sites throughout the country.

Our sister organization, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), has pushed for approval of the Colorectal Cancer Early Detection, Prevention, and Treatment Act, which would provide colon cancer screening to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured people. ACS CAN also is working to increase funding for the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), a program run by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that helps low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women get breast and cervical cancer screenings and follow-up care.

Further, the Society has long funded research that seeks to reduce the disparity gap. As of July 2008, ACS had 86 grants totaling $61.3 million to support disparities research.

Contact us at 1-800-227-2345 for more information on what we're doing to save more lives.


Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff

ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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