About one of every three Americans will develop some form of malignancy during his or her lifetime. This year alone, about 1,437,000 new cases will be diagnosed, and more than 565,000 people will die of the disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America, and as deaths from heart disease decline, it’s poised to assume the dubious distinction of becoming our leading killer.
Despite these grim statistics, doctors have made great progress in understanding the biology of cancer cells, and they have already been able to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. But instead of just waiting for new breakthroughs, you can do a lot to protect yourself right now.
Get regular check-ups, including the screening tests that can help detect cancer before it causes any symptoms. For men between 15 and 35, that means a periodic doctor’s testicular exam along with regular self-exams. All men older than 50 should have regular screening for colon cancer, and they should make an informed decision about testing for prostate cancer. Men with risk factors should begin both processes even earlier, and every man should routinely inspect himself for signs of melanomas and other skin cancers.
Screening tests can help detect malignancies in their earliest stages, but you should always be alert for symptoms of the disease. The American Cancer Society developed this simple reminder years ago:
- C: Change in bowel or bladder habits
- A: A sore that does not heal
- U: Unusual bleeding or discharge
- T: Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere
- I: Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
- O: Obvious change in a wart or mole
- N: Nagging cough or hoarseness
It’s a rough guide at best. The vast majority of such symptoms are caused by nonmalignant disorders, and cancers can produce symptoms that don’t show up on the list, such as unexplained weight loss or fatigue. But it is a useful reminder to listen to your body and report sounds of distress to your doctor.
Early diagnosis is important, but can you go one better? Can you reduce your risk of getting cancer in the first place? It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that up to 75% of American cancer deaths can be prevented; the table below summarizes their research on the causes of cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society is only slightly less optimistic about prevention, estimating that about 60% of America’s cancer deaths can be avoided. And a 2005 study argues that over 2.4 million of the world’s 7 million annual cancer deaths can be blamed on nine potentially correctable risk factors.