People often ask: What can be done now to prevent cancer in the future? Around the world we have seen a rise in cancer rates that has been linked to lifestyle changes associated with Westernisation, with developed countries already far ahead of developing nations in cancer incidence. “Western lifestyle” changes in this context refers to an increase in the consumption of fast food and a decrease in physical activity.
While it is important that guidelines for cancer prevention are based on hard science — papers published in peer-reviewed, respected journals — for many breast cancer survivors regular exercise improves outcomes for a number of less tangible reasons. Not least among these reasons are improved well being and an opportunity to spend time with other women. While many of these claims are anecdotal, the women report a feeling of control over both their future and the disease.
Graham Colditz is a leading expert in breast cancer epidemiology and a prominent scientist. He works with the American Cancer Society and other health organizations to inform the public on effective ways to reduce their risk of disease. He has developed the website www.yourdiseaserisk.wustl.edu to communicate scientific findings and to provide informative guidelines to the public about five diseases: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and stroke. The breast cancer section of the website has focused on risk profiling and, in particular, specific issues related to lifestyle. A recent study published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, concludes that women can reduce their breast cancer risk by exercising and maintaining their weight.
On an individual level, the modifiable risk factors such as physical activity, diet and alcohol intake not only provide improved well-being but also appear to have real health benefits as well. A woman’s overall risk of getting cancer is lowered and her chances of survival, should she be diagnosed with cancer, are improved.
Cancer is a complicated disease in which many contributing factors play their part. However, by implementing changes on a societal level and on a long-term basis, Colditz and his colleagues have estimated that up to half of all cancers may be preventable. As Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade and scientist by fame, said over two hundred years ago, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.