Survivorship

Cancer Prevention

Frequently Asked Questions

by Marian Johnson, Clinical Coordinator with the Prevention Clinics at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

Prevention — there's a lot you can do! Studies show that Americans say cancer is their number one health concern, yet they believe it is impossible to prevent. They believe cancer is beyond their control.

It's especially important to explore this misunderstanding for cancers survivors as they are at increased risk for recurrence of their original cancer as well as the development of second primary cancers. The heightened risk is the result of cancer therapy combined with factors such as family history.

Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) characterizes these misconceptions as distressing. "Popular frustration about cancer is on the rise. An 'everything causes cancer' mindset is taking hold, which causes Americans to throw up their hands and overlook the steps that can lower their risk." According to a 2007 AICR study, most Americans don't realize that they can lower their cancer risk by eating healthy foods, getting more exercise, and managing their weight.

Only a third of adults in the United States realize that a diet high in red meat increases one's risk for cancer (most specifically, colon cancer). About the same number of people know that alcohol is linked with cancers of the colon, breast, esophagus, mouth, larynx, and pharynx. Fewer than half of Americans realize that there is strong evidence that being overweight or obese increases risk factors for eight different cancers, including those of the colon, rectum and breast.

Most people believe that cancer is out of their control and that pesticides, food additives, and hormones in beef are the primary causes. Research says, however, that the links between these factors and cancer is low and that there is a lot people can do to minimize their risk.

A second AICR report, entitled "Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective," is the most comprehensive scientific analysis of cancer prevention and causation ever undertaken, authored by an international expert panel that reviewed 7,000 research studies and classified the accumulated evidence for specific diet-cancer links. The report is online at www.dietandcancerreport.org/.

The AICR also has compiled specific resources and recommendations for cancer survivors at www.aicr.org/site/PageServer?pagename=cs_home.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q. What is a second cancer? What are the causes of second cancers?

A second cancer is a malignancy that develops in someone who has survived an earlier cancer. Formally referred to as second primary neoplasms, second cancers are also described as late effects of the original disease or of the treatment used to cure it.

Some second cancers result from the risk factors responsible for the original disease, such as a genetic vulnerability or simply aging. Some second cancers are caused by radiation or chemotherapy treatments that damage normal cells or suppress the patient's immune system.

Scientists do not fully understand why chemotherapy causes some cancer survivors to develop new malignancies. They believe radiation's role in second cancers is influenced by:

  • the kind of radiation exposure the patient receives
  • how much radiation the patient receives
  • how old the patient is at the time of treatment
  • the patient's personal and family medical history

A patient who has had cancer should be aware of the risk of developing a second cancer. However, patients should not refuse or discontinue treatment for fear of developing a second malignancy. The benefits of cancer treatment far outweigh the risk of developing a new cancer. Also, it is important to know that most people will not get a second cancer.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.