Cancer in the US: Five Preventable Causes

Five preventable causes of cancer in the US.
Thirty percent of all cancer deaths are associated with five preventable causes, all of which are prevalent in the United States, according to the World Health Organization’s World Cancer Report 2014. The report was released today to mark the annual World Cancer Day and bring more awareness to global cancer trends. The report predicted a flood of cancer diagnoses in the next 20 years, the majority of which can be curbed with awareness and lifestyle changes.

1) High body mass index.The United States has the highest worldwide percentage of males over the age of 15 who are classified as overweight. Over 80 percent of males in the US have a body mass index over 25, and 44.2 percent have a BMI over 30, officially classifying them as obese. As for the ladies, a smaller percentage are overweight in the United States, and more countries join the US in the category of 65 to 80 percent of the female population over 15 with a BMI over 25. Body mass index does not take muscle mass into account, so health cannot necessarily be correlated to body mass index alone.  As one of the five leading preventable causes of cancer, it is worth noting the outstandingly high BMI prevalence in the United States.

Low fruit and vegetable intake is one of the top five preventable causes of cancer in the US.
2) Low fruit and vegetable intake. Besides being correlated with obesity, fewer fruits and vegetables oftentimes equates to fewer vitamins and nutrients in the diet. While individual vitamins and minerals have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, they are likely to be most effective in combination. Incorporating fruits and vegetables into the diet integrates a variety of vitamins and minerals, boosting cancer defense.

Currently, people in the US consume an average of 1.1 servings of fruit per day and 1.6 vegetables per day. While the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables vary based on age, sex, and activity level, these amounts are generally lower than what is recommended for a healthy diet. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.8 percent of diseases could be reduced by adequate fruit and vegetable consumption.

Cancer fighting foods include dark leafy greens, berries, apples, coffee, walnuts, tomatoes, green tea and whole grains. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables remains a challenge, with markedly different consumption patterns based on income and region.

3) Inactivity. Lack of physical activity is correlated with obesity, which in turn increases the risk of cancer. The exact link between obesity and cancer is unclear, but the behavior of excess fat cells in the body contributes to possible explanations. Fat cells can increase hormone levels which may cause a fluctuation in cell numbers, and the body’s ability to regulate tumor growth may also be impacted by the presence of fat cells. Physical activity not only reduces the risk of obesity, but also decreases the likelihood of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer as well as feelings of depression and anxiety.

4) Tobacco Use. Tobacco use is listed as one of the top five preventable causes of cancer, and its prevalence in the US exceeds the regional average, positioning tobacco use as one key area for the US to target for cancer prevention. Tobacco use has declined significantly since 1965 according to the surgeon general, but recent trends in e-cigarette use threaten to undo years of anti-smoking campaigns.

Tobacco use has been linked to lung cancer, liver cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. The Food and Drug Administration just launched a 115 million dollar anti-smoking campaign targeting 12 to 17 year olds, 10 million of whom reported being open to trying cigarettes. About 90 percent of regular smokers start smoking by the age of 18, so targeting the middle and high school demographic is meant as a preventative measure.

Worldwide, Russia has the highest percentage of males over 15 who smoke tobacco or cigarettes daily, and China ranks second. Russia is also among the highest ranked countries for females above the age of 15 who smoke daily.

Alcohol use is one of the top five preventable causes of cancer, and is used by over 50 percent of US adults.
5) Alcohol Use. Alcohol is associated with seven different kinds of cancer, from mouth, throat and esophagus to liver and breast cancer. The type of alcohol consumed does not contribute to cancer risk as much as the amount consumed. As consumption increases, so does the risk for developing cancer.

How alcohol increases cancer risk is somewhat unclear, but alcohol may damage body tissues, block the body’s ability to absorb necessary nutrients, raise estrogen levels, and increase body weight. All of these have been associated with elevated cancer risks. Using tobacco with alcohol may be especially harmful because alcohol could allow dangerous chemicals found in cigarettes to be absorbed more easily.

With over 50 percent of adults 18 and over using alcohol regularly in the United States, alcohol use is another key area to target for cancer prevention. Regular use is defined as over 12 drinks per year by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, inactivity, tobacco use, and alcohol use are five causes of cancer that are preventable and of particular prevalence in the United States.

By Julia Waterhous

National Cancer Institute
American Institute for Cancer Research
Surgeon General
New England Journal of Medicine

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