From safer sex to drinking less, Sarah Allinson talks about how young people can reduce their risk of preventable cancers
Most of us don’t think about cancer when we’re in our 20’s and 30’s. However, recent research has shown that people born after 1990 are more likely to develop cancer before the age of 50 than any previous generation.
While there are some things about cancer that we can’t change — like certain genes we’ve inherited — up to half of all cancers are preventable. This means that the lifestyle choices we make early in life can have a major impact on our risk of developing cancer later on.
Here are some of the most important lifestyle changes you can make now to lower your risk of cancer.
Not only is smoking the leading cause of lung cancer each year, it’s also linked to 14 other types of cancer, including mouth and throat cancer.
While young people are smoking less these days, due in part to the popularity of vaping, research still shows that nine out of 10 people who smoke regularly before the age of 25 have cancer, don’t smoke — or quit if they do do.
While vaping is certainly less harmful than smoking, its long-term effects have not been studied. For this reason, Cancer Research UK recommends using e-cigarettes only for smoking cessation.
The effects of smoking cannabis on cancer risk are also unknown, although there is some evidence of a small association between cannabis use and an increased risk of testicular cancer. Until further investigation is done, it may be best to avoid both as well.
HPV (human papillomavirus) – which causes genital warts – is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. It can also cause a number of cancers — including cancer of the cervix, penis, mouth, and throat.
HPV-associated cancers are particularly common in young people. In the UK alone, cervical cancer is most commonly diagnosed in women aged 30-34. It’s also believed that rising HPV rates could explain the recent rise in oral cancer among young men.
Being vaccinated against HPV and practicing safe sex will protect you from contracting the virus. Cervical screening (a “smear”) is also important for women because it can detect the presence of HPV infection before it can cause cancer. Therefore, women between the ages of 25 and 64 should be screened regularly.
Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of 13 different types of cancer, including colon, breast, uterine and pancreatic cancer. Excess fat leads to inflammation in the body, which promotes tumor growth and helps cancer cells divide. Fat cells also produce the hormone estrogen, which can stimulate the growth of tumors in the breast and uterus.
For this reason, the increased risk of cancer is more pronounced in women. Cancers associated with being overweight or obese are becoming increasingly common, particularly among younger adults.
Not only that, but poor diet alone can also contribute to a higher risk of cancer. For example, eating too much red and processed meat has been linked to an increased risk of developing colon cancer. On the other hand, increasing evidence suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet high in fiber and a variety of fruits and vegetables actually reduces the risk of various types of cancer.
Eating right and trying to maintain a healthy weight can both be great ways to reduce your risk of many different types of cancer later in life.
Alcohol is known to increase the risk of developing various types of cancer, including liver, breast and esophageal cancer. While it is true that the more one drinks, the greater the risk, it is also believed that even moderate alcohol consumption contributes 100,000 cases to the annual global burden of cancer. Although the effects of binge drinking haven’t been studied much, one study suggests that moderate drinkers who binge drink regularly have up to a 50 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. Smoking while drinking alcohol can also increase the carcinogenic effects of smoking.
Reduce the amount you drink—or stop drinking altogether—to reduce your risk of cancer. The NHS recommends that you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (about 6 pints or 10 small glasses of wine) and aim to go several days without alcohol each week.
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the under 40s. It has also become more common in recent decades.
The main cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet radiation – either from the sun or from tanning beds. Because the effects of UV radiation are cumulative, the areas of our skin that are most frequently exposed to the sun (e.g. our face) are most likely to develop skin cancer. In addition to these cumulative effects, a bad sunburn at a young age can increase your risk of developing the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
You can protect yourself from skin cancer by using sunscreen when you are exposed to intense sunlight. This includes wearing a hat, covering yourself with long clothing and wearing sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15, bearing in mind that no sunscreen offers 100% protection. This is especially important for people at increased risk of skin cancer, such as those with fair skin and a tendency to freckle.
The best ways to reduce your risk of many types of cancer are also linked to better health in general. Other ways you can improve your overall health and fitness while protecting yourself from cancer are through physical activity and avoiding air pollution.
This article was republished from The Conversation.
Sarah Allinson is a Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University and has been a cancer researcher for nearly two decades.