MINNEAPOLIS – February is National Cancer Prevention Month, and a leading cancer researcher with the University of Minnesota says preventative screenings coupled with healthy living go a long way in helping our bodies defeat many types of cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, roughly 8.1 million Americans were diagnosed with some type of cancer in 2020, with breast, lung and prostate cancer topping the list.

“(Cancer) is usually localized at the beginning, but it can grow and eventually those cells can spread to other parts of the body,” explains Dr. Tim Church, biostatistician and cancer researcher. “When they do, it can interfere with the functioning of vital organs.”

Church, whose research laid the groundwork for current colorectal cancer screening and prevention procedures, says a healthy diet and an active lifestyle are crucial to lowering the risk of many types of cancer.

“So, more fruits, more vegetables, less sugar and less refined carbohydrates,” Church says. “If you eat meat, you should try not to eat a lot of red or well-done meat – that, very specifically, can reduce your cancer risk. So, maybe have those barbecued ribs every other month or so – not every week.”

Church says a healthy diet should be accompanied by regular aerobic exercise.

“Exercise causes a lot of the systems in your body to work much better,” Church explains. “You’ll have better sleep, better regulation of your mood, a healthy cardiovascular system and a stronger immune system.”

And, Church says a healthy immune system is essential to preventing the growth of cancerous cells.

“Your immune system is your first line of defense against cancer cells,” he says. “So, the stronger your immune system is, the harder it is for that cancer cell to gain a foothold and actually start growing and causing problems.”

Beyond diet and exercise, Church says there are other decisions we can make in our daily lives to lessen our risk of developing cancer.

“Smoking,” Church says. “I think everyone on the planet now knows lung cancer can be caused by smoking, but it can also cause bladder and neck cancer. So, to not smoke is one of the best things you can do.”

“Then there’s sun exposure,” Church adds. “That can lead to increases in skin cancer. So, if you can stay out of the sun during the middle of the day, wear sunscreen and stay away from tanning booths – all of those things will reduce your risk of getting skin cancer, which can be very dangerous. Once Melanoma spreads to the rest of your body, it can be very fatal.”

Church says people should also try to avoid cancer-causing chemicals at home and at work.

“We all know about asbestos, and how we found out what a dangerous substance that is,” Church says. “It causes something called Mesothelioma. Industrial chemicals like benzene, and some of the chemicals used for dry cleaning can cause cancers. Radon in your home or workplace can cause cancer, and in fact secondhand smoke can increase your risk as well. So, try to avoid all of those things.”

Church says another thing has contributed significantly to preventing cancer cell growth in the last few decades – early detection.

“Many cancers, if you detect them early, can be kept from becoming fatal or even happening in the first place,” Church says. “It’s important that people stand up for themselves and make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks of our medical system.”

Not all cancers are caused by lifestyle or environmental factors. Church says around 15 percent of people who develop the disease have a genetic history of cancer.

“Some of us have a risk that was conferred upon us by the family we were born into,” he explains. “So, those people who have a lot of cancer in their family should go to their doctor and even be referred to a genetic counselor who can help them make decisions about what further testing to do, and how to communicate this risk to other family members. That’s one way for those people who are afflicted with the genetic risk of cancer to deal with it.”

There are a handful of cancers Church says all people, regardless of genetics, need to be screened for during their lifetimes.

“Everybody should be screened for colorectal cancer once they reach the age of 45,” Church says. “All women between the ages of 21 and 65 should be screened for cervical cancer. The HPV vaccination almost eliminates the risk of cervical cancer. Women who are 40 should talk to their physician about a mammography screening, and then those over 45 should be screened annually.”

“And then finally, we’ve learned that you can be screened for lung cancer with special x-rays,” Church adds. “It’s very quick, it’s very easy, and it can detect very small cancers in the lungs before they become incurable and can reduce the mortality of lung cancer by about 20 percent.”

Church says he’s heartened by cancer statistics, compiled by the government and the American Cancer Society, showing that the rates of cancer in the United States are dropping every year.

“They’re dropping at least in part because of our efforts to screen and prevent cancer,” Church says. “We have more research and better treatments as well, but the bulk of it is from better screening and prevention efforts like diet and exercise.”

“Be sure to talk to your physician about ways to reduce your cancer risk and improve your overall health,” Church says. “If you’re of a certain age, make sure to get screened, and hopefully we can tame this monster.”

To learn more about preventing cancer, visit the American Cancer Society’s website.

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