Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

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Who can get cancer?

Anyone can get cancer. One of the biggest factors that makes a person more likely to get cancer is age: 3 out of 4 cancers are found in people age 55 or older. But there are many other factors that affect cancer risk and some of them can be changed. It’s only natural that people are looking for more ways to prevent cancer.

Can cancer be prevented?

Sometimes cancer can be prevented. Looking at the whole country, it’s quite possible that more than half of cancer deaths could be prevented—if no one used tobacco and if everyone took steps to improve their health. Of course, that’s a big “if.”

But is there a way to guarantee that you or your loved ones won’t get cancer? So far, nothing has been found that’s proven to prevent every case of cancer. Right now we know there are ways to prevent many cases of cancer in large groups of people. And there are things you can do that might help reduce your personal chance of getting cancer. (See Appendix A at the end of this document for the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for reducing cancer risk.)

If cancer does develop, there are also early detection tests that can improve the odds that cancer will be found at an early stage (when it’s small and easier to treat). But, as of today, even the best methods to try and reduce your cancer risk (called cancer risk reduction) cannot prevent all cancers. Because certain methods and drugs can prevent some cancers in large groups of people, we will still use the term cancer prevention here.

When you hear about something new to prevent cancer

In your quest to be healthy, you may hear about something that you are told can reduce your risk of cancer—a new way you haven’t heard about before. It might sound like a good idea, and you want to try it.

You may have questions, though, since you are thinking about spending your money, time, and energy on something that may not be proven. At this point, you may not be sure if it will actually reduce your risk of cancer, or if it could even harm you. Before you put your body and your money on the line, there are ways to find out more.

FDA-approved drugs: The new method may be a medicine that your doctor recommends to you reduce your cancer risk. It’s pretty easy to find out more about FDA-approved drugs, since there are many trustworthy sources and careful scientific studies involved. We can help you find out more, and there are others who can help, too. (See the “To learn more” section at the end of this document.)

Methods being studied for FDA approval: Maybe the method you heard about hasn’t been approved, but is “in the pipeline” to become a mainstream cancer prevention method in the future. It may be a pill, a treatment, or something else. It’s usually not too hard to find information about these kinds of treatments. If the treatment has ever been approved by the FDA for any medical use, you can usually find good information on risks and side effects. But it may be harder to find out about how well it works for cancer prevention.

Non-prescription herbs, supplements, diets, and special treatments: Other methods you uncover may be herbs, vitamins, other dietary supplements, health tonics, “body cleansings,” or special diets that are supposed to boost the immune system, among many other things. It used to be that there were almost no studies that looked at these methods, but doctors are now trying to study more of them in the same ways that they study other methods.

Lifestyle changes: You may hear about other things you can do that are expected to help reduce your cancer risk. For instance, quitting tobacco, increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat, getting more exercise, cutting back on alcohol and red meats, and staying at a healthy weight are all methods that have been given more attention lately. Studies on some these methods are fairly easy to find.

Whatever method you are thinking about, take the time to see what you can learn about it from sources you trust. Here we will give you some ideas to help you when you are searching for more information.

This document only addresses ways to look at information on methods that are said to prevent cancer, but some of the same principles can be used when looking at information on cancer treatment, symptom management, and other aspects of cancer detection and care. For more on learning about cancer treatments, see our document called Learning About New Cancer Treatments.


Last Medical Review: 09/04/2012
Last Revised: 09/04/2012