The news about cancer continues to be good. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that death rates decreased by 1.6 percent annually from 2004 to 2008 for lung, colorectal and prostate cancers. Death rates from breast cancer have remained stable -- but steep declines occurred in the early 2000s because of reduced use of hormone replacement therapy.
But the death rates from certain cancers are increasing. These include pancreatic, uterine and esophageal cancers. And deaths from malignant melanoma are reaching epidemic proportions, particularly in the Sun Belt.
While the overall rates of death are falling, the actual numbers of cancers are increasing as the 72 million baby boomers reach old age. In 2011, the American Cancer Society reported 1.6 million newly diagnosed cancers and 580,000 deaths. The most common were lung (160,000 deaths), colorectal (49,000 deaths), breast (39,000 deaths), pancreas (37,000 deaths) and prostate (34,000 deaths).
Many cancers are more common in families that may carry certain genes that increase the risk of certain cancers, such as colon, breast, bladder and uterine. The risk of getting colon or prostate cancer is much higher in blacks than it is in whites. For anyone who is at increased risk, diligent screening is critical to identify and treat cancer as early as possible. Screening may be required at a much earlier age for those at high risk.
And though there is controversy about the use of the prostate-specific antigen test to screen for prostate cancer in healthy men, there is agreement that the PSA test should be done in high-risk individuals and populations. We must understand that we are all at risk for cancer, and every one of us should follow the standard guidelines for screening for the common cancers afflicting us.
Though we cannot do much about our genes, there is general consensus that we can reduce our cancer risk. Over the past 50 years, concerted efforts have been undertaken to reduce the pollutants in the environment and in our food that can cause cancer. Smoking cessation and avoiding excessive exposure to irradiation (which occurs each time a CT scan is done) should be encouraged.
Just as critical is the compelling link between cancer and obesity, the foods we eat and a sedentary lifestyle. According to the National Cancer Institute, there is a strong relationship between obesity and the risk of colorectal, breast (after the menopause), pancreatic, esophageal, thyroid and gallbladder cancers. But whether the threat is our weight or our food choices is still not clear. We do know that a high-fat diet increases cancer risk irrespective of weight. And the kind of fat is key. Diets high in saturated fats (from animal products) and polyunsaturated fats (soy, corn and safflower) increase cancer risk.
By contrast, monounsaturated fats, found in olive and canola oils, decrease cancer risk. Omega-6 fatty acids, found in animal fat, increase cancer risk, whereas omega-3 fatty acids, found in nuts and fish oil, reduce risk. It is not how much fat but which fats you eat that is important. Cancer also is more prevalent in those who become overweight because of too many calories from sugar and starches. This increases the risk of diabetes and cancer. The message is clear: A healthful, prudent diet is essential to reduce the risk of obesity and to decrease the risk of the most common diseases leading to our demise (vascular disease and cancer).
And finally, more and more evidence indicates a link between a sedentary lifestyle and cancer. Numerous research studies have shown a strong link between inactivity and a higher risk of colon, breast, uterine and prostate cancers. And the risk of lung cancer is 20 percent higher in smokers who are inactive as compared with those who exercise.
There is much to celebrate about advances made against cancer. Lifestyle changes have decreased the risk, and improved screening and better therapies have led to more and more cures. But much needs to be done. More research is needed to optimize diagnosis and treatment, and we must personally commit to doing everything possible to ensure that we remain cancer-free.
Dr. David Lipschitz's weekly column, "Lifelong Health," can be found at creators.com.