Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Why reducing your risk matters right now — whether you or someone you love is in treatment or hoping to avoid a recurrence.
Could I have prevented my cancer?
This is the question I ask myself during National Cancer Prevention Month. Did I do something that resulted in me now living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer? Was a single choice or a series of choices, made recently or long ago, responsible for this disease appearing in my breast and then spreading outward into my lungs?
Though I don't ask "Why me?", I'd be lying if I didn't wonder, sometimes in the middle of the night, about the mix of factors that resulted in this cancer of mine.
As someone living with cancer, I also wonder about this focus on prevention that doesn't do enough to save the lives of people like me. The emphasis on preventing cancer, by yourself and for yourself, implies that you can do it all through your own personal choices. For me, after five years of living with a stage four cancer, this message is a sort of "pink-washing" across the entire cancer spectrum. That's because all the good choices you make may not prevent cancer.
I believe that researchers and organizations want to encourage healthy, responsible behavior that reduces cancer risk. This month, reading social media posts and articles talking about prevention is especially hard. That's because I know how easy it is to believe the message that many with cancer could have prevented it.
It's a harmful message. It's harmful to people like me, living with cancer, and it's harmful to the people who love us. It can hurt close relationships and change friendships. It's harmful to researchers and research funders as well, because why should cancer research happen if prevention is all within individual control?
I wish that we'd just say "risk reduction" because while our individual choices may not prevent cancer there are steps we can take to reduce risk. This National Cancer Prevention Month, it's worth putting into practice what we know:
The HPV Vaccine
If you fall within the age guidelines and your doctor recommends it, the HPV vaccine has been shown to prevent the most common forms of cervical cancer and has an effect on oral cancer incidence.
Get Checked For Hepatitis C
Inflammation happens with hepatitis and, for those born between 1945 and 1965, the most common viral form in the United States is Hepatitis C. Liver problems, including liver cancer, can occur when it is chronic.
Get Genetic Testing
Some people are genetically predisposed to certain cancers, including breast cancer. A doctor can provide access to the right genetic testing and help you understand what the results mean for your future health care choices. Knowing if you have a genetic predisposition may allow you to minimize that risk or avoid it altogether.
Go To Those Screenings
We all know that certain screenings should be done, but it's easy to put them off when we're feeling good. We shouldn't.
Screenings may not prevent cancer but they can mean cancer is found at an earlier, more treatable stage. Screenings for prostate, cervical and breast cancer are well-known. Lung cancer screening is becoming more common and your dentist should be able to look for signs of oral cancer.
Get To & Keep A Healthy Weight
I'm no fan of BMI calculations, but they do provide a numerical value that's easy to understand even when it isn't perfect. Your doctor can help you figure out what weight is most healthy for you and help you find ways to get there through better dietary habits.
Exercise Most Days
A combination of moderate and vigorous exercise is best and was recently linked to risk reduction in seven types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Though not smoking doesn't mean you'll never get lung cancer, it can significantly lower your risk of that cancer, as well as cancer of the mouth and throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, larynx, trachea, bronchus, kidney and renal pelvis, urinary bladder and cervix.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Personal choices that can reduce your risk include using sun-protective measures, such as staying in the shade and using adequate sunscreen and staying away from tanning beds.
Our individual behaviors can make a difference in risk but right now they haven't reached the level of prevention. That doesn't mean there's no hope or that you are powerless. Taking steps to reduce risk can help you feel more in control of your health and, should cancer appear or reappear, you'll be in the best possible position. Reducing risk matters.