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Cheating Cancer


Cancer isn’t one disease. There are more than 200 sorts, affecting different parts of the body and they can be anything from benign to malignant to aggressive. The four most common cancers in the UK are breast, lung, bowel and prostate.
Experts estimate that one in three of us will develop some form of cancer during our lifetime and most of us know someone suffering from cancer. There’s evidence that some forms are inherited, but the good news is that there is plenty we can do to protect ourselves from many forms of cancer. Some cancers are slow growing and relatively benign, so if they are spotted early they can be treated.

Studies have shown that cancer is probably caused more by what you do, where you are and what happens in your life than by who you are. Scientists know that cancer is caused by a combination of environmental factors, such as smoking, diet, pollution and sun damage, together with the actions of damaged genes. What’s not certain is how far cancer is inherited – whether people are doomed to cancer through having been born with faulty genes and how far genes can be damaged by the environment.

Even if you’re at risk of a particular cancer because of your family history, you still probably won’t get it. What you do with your life is much more important. Not smoking and eating a healthy diet really can make a difference.


Don’t smoke and avoid passive smoking as much as possible. Don’t allow people to smoke in your home Watch your alcohol intake and keep below the limits for safe drinking (see Protect yourself for more info) Eat a varied healthy diet with plenty of fruit and veg and other high-fibre foods. Limit your intake of saturated fats and eat healthy fats such as nuts and seeds (see Protect yourself for more info) Practise safe sun: wear sunscreen or cover up in the sun, don’t lie in the sun for long periods and stay out of the sun in the middle of the day. Check your skin regularly for moles that change, get bigger or bleed Have regular health checks and screening tests such as cervical smears and mammograms. Keep a check on yourself – breasts and testicles, for example. See your doctor if you are worried about anything – (see Warning Signs) Always take precautions and follow instructions when using hazardous materials at home or at work


These lifestyle changes will really make a difference and help you keep cancer at bay.
Exercise may reduce your risk of getting cancer by as much as half. All you have to do is to walk briskly for half an hour or more every day as well as generally keeping active – walking up stairs instead of using the lift or escalator, walking to the shops instead of using the car, dancing to your favourite music instead of sitting slumped in front of the TV. It all helps.

Exercise is vital for reducing the risk of many diseases, including cancer of the colon and breast. We still don’t really know why, but exercise may lower body fat levels and help muscles mop up insulin so there’s less around to stimulate cancer growth in breast or colon cells.

Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can every day. Have at least as five – ten is even better. Experts think that at least a third of cancers are diet-related. We don’t know exactly which foods are most protective, but a diet rich in fresh veg and fruit has, and always will, protect you against cancer. For example, carrots and tomatoes seem to protect against prostate cancer. And high-fibre foods like veg and fruit appear to lessen your risk of colon cancer.

Reduce your alcohol intake. Too much alcohol increases your risk of cancers of the mouth and larynx, liver, and possibly bowel. Men as well as women are more likely to suffer breast cancer if they are heavy drinkers. The most you should drink is two units a day for women and three for men but it’s best to keep well below these limits. Have at least some alcohol-free days every week.

Keep your weight down. This is one of the most important ways of reducing your cancer risk. If you’re very overweight, you’re at greater risk of cancer of the womb, kidney, colon and breast. But it’s no good going on a crash diet and then putting it all on again. The best solution is to eat healthily and keep active and you’ll lose weight slowly but permanently.
The link here is thought to be with “cancer-causing” hormones such as insulin-like growth factor, which is plentiful if you’re fat. If you stay lean you minimize your exposure to these insidious hormones.

Screening programmes aim to test large amounts of people for early signs of illness. The earlier any potential problems are found, the better they can be treated.

No woman who is regularly screened will develop cervical cancer. The screening test to prevent cancer of the cervix is the cervical smear test. Women should have cervical smears every three to five years, starting within six months of becoming sexually active and continuing until their early sixties. The test is simple. The doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from your cervix with a spatula or small brush. These are examined in a laboratory for signs of pre-cancerous cell changes. Early changes are easy to treat.

In women under about 45 the breast is too fibrous for mammograms to be effective. After this age, though, women should have a mammogram every three years. Currently the NHS is screening women up to the age 64, but there are plans to extend this to 70. If you are over 65 and would like a mammogram, however, your doctor can arrange this.

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray of the breast. It can pick up small tumours and other abnormalities that neither you nor your doctor can feel.

Having a mammogram takes only a few minutes. It might be slightly uncomfortable but it’s not painful. You’ll be asked to strip to the waist and stand in front of the machine. The radiologist will compress your breast between two plates. Two views of each breast are usually taken.

After your screening, the films are developed and examined by a specialised radiologist. If your mammogram shows any kind of lump, you will need further tests. This can be worrying but the chances of an all-clear are still high.

If you do have a lump you may be given FNAC – fine needle aspiration cytology. The needle is inserted into the lump and some of the cells are drawn off.

If the lump is fluid-filled, it’s a cyst and nearly always harmless. Your specialist will draw off the fluid with a needle and it’s rare that a sample needs to be sent for testing.

If the lump is solid some of the cells will be examined in a laboratory and, depending on the results, you may need further tests.

There’s not a screening programme for prostate cancer at present. But men can have a test to measure levels of PSA (prostate-specific antigen) in the blood. A raised reading is not always a sign of prostate cancer but is the signal for further tests to confirm early diagnosis and begin treatment. However, some men with prostate cancer do not have raised PSA and there is still disagreement about whether this test should be introduced as a screening programme.

The NHS is planning to introduce bowel cancer screening in 2006. It is hoped that catching and treating this cancer at an early stage could reduce death rates.

Screening can be carried out by examining stools for blood that can’t be seen by the naked eye or by looking inside the bowel itself with by means of a special camera on a flexible tube.

This is the fourth most common cancer among women in the UK, but there is currently no screening programme. Research is underway to find out if screening tests could help detect the cancer early enough to reduce the number of deaths. Ovarian cancer does tend to show up in women who are high risk for breast cancer, so making lifestyle changes similar to those for reducing breast cancer risk can help protect you.

Warning signs
These are NOT symptoms of cancer, but they are a warning that you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Most probably there’ll be a simple explanation, but if there is a problem the sooner you get treatment the better.


a lump or thickening in your breast any change in a wart or mole an ulcer that doesn’t heal a sudden change in your usual bowel habits a persistent cough or hoarse voice persistent heartburn or indigestion blood in your stools or sudden discharge

It may be that some cancers do run in families so it’s important to check out your family history. Although cancers may appear in the same family by chance, some people can inherit faulty genes from their parents. For example, experts think there’s a cancer gene for breast cancer, ovarian cancer and colon cancer. If you have these cancers in your family it’s wise to enrol at a special cancer clinic where you can have the appropriate tests and checks and get expert medical advice.

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