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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Are you worried about...cancer?

Many people worry about getting cancer. Sometimes people think they have a higher risk of developing cancer because there has been cancer in their family. This section explains:

  • How uncommon it is for cancer to run in families.
  • What we know about the main causes of cancer.
  • What you can do to help yourself.

Cancer risk

The cause of most cancers is not known. But we do know that some things (called ‘risk factors’) increase our chances of developing cancer. If you have a particular risk factor for cancer, this does not mean that you will definitely get cancer, just as not having it does not mean that you won’t get ill. It is about probability.

Smoking is a good example of this: if you smoke, it is not certain that you will get cancer. If you don’t smoke, it is not certain that you won’t. But if you smoke, your risk of getting lung cancer is far higher than if you don’t. Nine out of ten people who develop lung cancer are smokers.

Cancer genes/family history

Genes are the biological information you inherit from your parents. They affect the way your body grows, works and looks. Only a small number of cancers (between 5 and 10% or less than 1 in 10 cases) seem to be caused by a gene that is inherited from either parent.

Many people think that because they have one or two relatives with cancer, this means that a 'cancer gene' is running in their family. But this is not normally the case.

It is only likely that a 'cancer gene' is present in a family if:

  • There are two or more close blood relatives on the same side of the family with the same type of cancer.
  • Cancers are occurring at young ages (i.e. before the age of 60).
  • If a close relative has had two different types of cancer (not one cancer that has spread).
  • There are particular types of cancers that are known to run together, for example breast and ovarian or bowel and womb cancer.

If your family is like this, and you are worried about developing cancer yourself, you might want to talk to your GP. They will confirm your family history and might refer you to see a specialist. People with a strong family history of some cancers (bowel and breast) are invited to have more regular screening than people who don’t seem at increased risk. Genetic testing is only available for breast, ovarian and bowel cancer. It is normally only possible, if you have a relative with one of these cancers who is willing to be tested first.

If you are still worried

If you have just one or two elderly relatives who developed cancer, it is very unlikely that you are at much increased risk of cancer. However, it can be a normal reaction to severe illness in your family or to bereavement that you worry about getting the same disease.

So if you can’t stop worrying, you might find it helpful to see a counsellor, who can help you get things into perspective. You can ask your GP for details of a local service, or you can call the Cancer Counselling Trust or Cancerbackup.

MIND, the mental health charity, has published a useful leaflet called How to stop worrying.

Other risk factors

Other risk factors usually play a more important role in the development of cancer. For example, the main risk factor for cancer is age. This means that the older you are, the more likely it is that you will develop cancer. Cancer is relatively rare in young people, but relatively common in the old. 65% of cancers (about 2 out of 3 cases) happen to people over 65.

But your age isn’t something you can do anything about. So it is good to know that there are some things that you can control that can reduce your risk of getting cancer. Doing those things doesn’t mean that you definitely won’t get cancer - but it makes it less likely. So here are some things that you might want to consider:

Give up smoking Smoking is the single biggest cause of cancer that can be avoided. About 30% of cancers (1 in 3 cases) are caused by smoking. It is responsible for around 90% (9 out of 10 cases) of lung cancer, but also plays a role in many other cancers, for example cancer of the mouth, throat, bladder, pancreas, bowel, stomach and cervix.

If you smoke, giving up is the healthiest decision you can make. If you want help, ask your GP or call the NHS smoking helpline on 0800 169 0169 or visit www.gosmokefree.co.uk

Do some regular exercise Not doing enough exercise increases the risk of developing bowel and breast cancer. Exercise seems to regulate the level of hormones and growth factors that are present in your body, which reduces the risk of developing cancer.

Take up some regular exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym; walking, cycling or gardening, done regularly, can be enough.

Maintain a healthy weight Being overweight or obese increases your cancer risk, particularly for bowel cancer, breast cancer after the menopause and also endometrial (womb) and kidney cancer. If you are overweight, you have different levels of hormones and growth factors in your blood, which seems to increase your cancer risk.

A balanced diet There are always a lot of stories in the media about how diet may affect cancer risk. However, there is no single food or diet that can guarantee that you won’t get cancer, just as there is no single food that can be blamed for causing the illness. But it seems that an overall well-balanced diet reduces cancer risk, in particular the risk of developing bowel cancer.

A healthy diet is one that limits the intake of red meat, animal fat and salt, and includes plenty of fruit and vegetables.

If you or your children are overweight, unsure about your diet or don’t do much exercise, feel free to mention your concerns to your GP. Your GP can give you more information or can help you get specialist support. Sometimes you can even get financial help, for example for joining a gym.

Sun protection Sunlight contains radiation (UV rays) which can damage the skin and cause skin cancer. This is particularly the case for fair skinned, blond and ginger haired people.

Protecting yourself and your children from sunburn reduces your cancer risk. Use a 'broad spectrum' sun cream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Wear loose, cotton clothes that cover your body, and a hat. Take extra care with children.

Be safe with alcohol Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol increases your cancer risk. In particular, alcohol plays a role in throat and mouth cancer, but it can also increase risk of bowel and breast cancer.

It is recommended that men should drink no more than 3–4 units a day and women no more than 2–3 units a day, a maximum of 21 units/week for men and 14 units/week for women. A unit is 1 half-pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider or 1 small glass of wine or 1 single measure of spirits

Safer sex There are some viruses that play a role in the development of some specific cancers. Generally, these viruses are sexually transmitted, but some of them can also be transmitted through blood (for example, if drug users share a needle). Human papillomavirus (HPV) plays a role in many cases of cervical cancer. Hepatitis B and C can cause liver cancer, and the HIV (AIDS) virus can cause lymphomas and sarcomas (this is rare).

Practising safer sex (by using condoms) can prevent you from contracting these viruses.

Being body aware Being body aware means that you know what is normal for you and what seems a serious change.

The ‘European Code Against Cancer’ recommends that you should contact your doctor if you have:

  • A lump anywhere in your body
  • Changes in a mole on your skin (like bleeding, itching, or a change in shape and colour)
  • A cough or hoarseness that won’t go away, even after 2 weeks
  • A change in bowel habits that won’t go away, even after 2 weeks
  • Any abnormal bleeding (from your vagina, your back passage, in your urine or when vomiting)
  • Unexplained serious weight loss (5kg or 10lb over a couple of months)

You are not wasting your doctor’s time if you mention any of these symptoms to them.

Via: http://www.cancerbackup.org.uk

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