January 30, 2017: Sung Ho Lee, MD, Board Certified Medical Oncologist and Hematologist with Highland Medical Hematology Oncology Associates of Rockland, shares how people can lower their risk of cancer through lifestyle choices and screening tests, what progress has been made in fighting the disease, and what advice he gives patients.
Q: What lifestyle changes or advice would you offer to lower your cancer risk?
A: Despite the widely held belief that cancer is largely a hereditary condition, only 5-10% of cancers are inherited. In other words, 90% of the time cancer is related to our lifestyles and habits. Smoking cigarettes and excessive exposure to direct sunlight are well-known cancer risk factors, but there are many others we can avoid to reduce our risk of cancer.
First, developing a healthy diet can reduce your cancer risk. There is a saying, “We are made of what we eat and breathe,” which emphasizes the choices of food we consume as well as the environment we live in. Eat in moderation, with a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and fiber. Limit processed foods that contain chemicals and additives, especially processed meat products (such as processed sausages, ham and bacon) which have been recently designated as carcinogens by the World Health Organization. When possible, pick hormone-free meat and dairy products, as hormones in the food could have adverse effect on our body as well.
Second, maintaining healthy body weight can also reduce risk of cancer. It is well known that excess weight can cause an increase in circulating estrogen and insulin, which can stimulate cancer growth. Third, learn to read labels carefully. Avoid potential carcinogens such as BPA (bisphenol A) used in many plastic products. Did you know that the plastic used in bottled waters is often not BPA-free? Some animal studies have suggested that BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butlated hydroxyanisole), which are used in many foods as part of preservatives, as well as in lipsticks and other cosmetics, may be carcinogenic.
Q: What cancer screenings are important that patients often overlook?
A: Pap smears, mammograms and colonoscopies have been proven to be cost-effective in detecting cancer at an earlier stage for higher rates of cure. Those screening measures differ by age group. It is important to discuss this with your physician so that you can receive age-appropriate screening.
Q: What advancements in treatment and survival rates most excite you?
A: I am especially excited about recent advances in immunotherapy. Our bodies have the capacity to detect and fight naturally occurring malignancies in our body, by being able to tell the difference between normal cells and those it sees as “foreign.” This allows the immune system to attack foreign cells while leaving normal cells alone. The body uses “checkpoints” —molecules on immune cells that are activated or inactivated to start an immune-system response.
Cancer cells sometimes can use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Researchers have developed therapies that can go around this escape pathway, thereby helping our immune system fight cancer. This class of drugs has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for certain types of cancers, including lung cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, certain lymphomas and melanomas. Researchers are continuing to study immunotherapy to treat other types of cancer as well.
Immunotherapy does not have the conventional toxicities that are associated with traditional chemotherapies, which has enabled oncologists to treat weak and elderly patients successfully who otherwise would not have been candidates for treatment.
Q: What are some myths and misconceptions about cancer?
A: Many people think of a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. But in fact many cancers are considered curable, and many otherwise incurable cancers can be managed successfully with only a small impact on quality of life, so that it becomes like a chronic illness. It is important to discuss all aspects of treatment options with a medical oncologist to benefit from current advances in cancer research. Some people believe that certain products ranging from deodorants to hair dye to cell phones can cause cancer, but thus far there is no solid scientific evidence linking these environmental exposures to cancer.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer?
A: It can be difficult to find the correct information amongst the myriad of misinformation flooding the internet, which could potentially mislead patients into trying unreliable and unproven therapies, instead of being treated with therapies that have proven to be effective. It is of utmost importance to speak to a knowledgeable medical oncologist and explore treatment options before jumping to conclusions based on information found online.