Editor’s Note: Kathy Giusti (@KathyGiusti) is the founder and chief mission officer of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. She co-chairs the Harvard Business School Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, which she helped found. Kathy has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Over the last year, people have made so many sacrifices to protect their health, from taking care of kids amid school closures to staying isolated from our elderly loved ones. Concerns about family health have driven many of us to great lengths to ensure we stay safe during this public health crisis.
We turned fear into action and that is worth applauding. The question is, can we take that pandemic mindset and apply it to other grave risks to our health?
One of the most pernicious of all such threats is cancer. Around one in three Americans will get cancer in their lifetime. We tend to think about cancer as something directed by fate or another force we cannot control. But the truth is that we can all take steps to get ahead of a potential cancer diagnosis. By doing so, we can improve prognoses and change the trajectory of this devastating disease.
As a 25-year cancer survivor, I know what it means to face that terrifying diagnosis. I also know a thing or two about what it takes to beat it. Here are three tips to keep in mind as you join in the fight:
Know your risk
Not long after the novel coronavirus arrived, we learned that age was a potent risk factor for the disease, and we shaped our actions around that information. We focused on protecting our parents or grandparents, as the risk of Covid to an 80-year-old is greater than it is to a younger person.
With cancer, knowing your risks are just as important. And that starts with understanding your family history. We now know that inherited gene mutations play a role in more than 50 cancer syndromes. Between 45 to 72% of women who inherit a harmful variant of the BRCA gene will develop breast cancer by the age of 70-80, for example.
So, first things first: Talk to your family – especially your parents and grandparents – and find out if you’re at risk of any cancers. Your doctor may also recommend genetic testing, which has become increasingly affordable in recent years, costing between $300 and $5,000 and often covered by insurance.
These tests are as simple as giving a blood or saliva sample in your doctor’s office and awaiting the results. Having an understanding of your predisposition to cancers may help your doctor decide if you should get screened earlier or more often. It may also inspire changes in lifestyle that will help minimize risk.
While family history matters, the vast majority of cancers are actually the product of acquired gene mutations, meaning they result from our environment. Remarkably, up to half of all cancers can be prevented by making healthy life choices, according to the World Health Organization. Obesity, for example, makes you nearly twice as likely to develop stomach, liver, kidney and uterine cancers.
It turns out that eating healthy is almost as important for cancer prevention as mask-wearing is for Covid prevention.
Testing. Testing. Testing
It’s a mantra we know all too well by now after nearly a year of pandemic life, but testing is even more important when it comes to cancer. Modern medicine has gotten really advanced with cancer screening, but we have yet to get really good at getting screened. Yearly mammogram screenings have been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer mortality by more than 40% in Canada and Europe, according to data cited by the American Cancer Society, for example.
But according to a 2015 National Health Interview survey, just over half of women 45 and older had gotten a mammogram in the 12 months prior. Similarly, when colorectal cancer is found at an early stage, the five-year survival rate is 90%, yet one in three Americans who should be screened never have been, according to the American Cancer Society.
Given my history of cancer, I am prone to getting secondary cancers as a result of my treatment and family history. For that reason, I get screened quite a bit. No one has to tell me about the anxiety that lurks while awaiting results. But cancer does not have to be a death sentence if it’s caught early, and that will only happen if we make the effort to catch it.
Seek out the best treatment
If you are diagnosed, know your options, try to find a treatment team that has deep expertise with your specific type of cancer and consider joining a clinical trial. We see headlines reporting that health care workers and nursing home residents were among the first to get access to the coronavirus vaccine. But the truth is, the first people to actually get access were the clinical trial participants.
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In the past several years, the breakthroughs in cancer treatment have been profound. The science is moving incredibly fast, but time-to-market for these new therapeutics can be frustratingly slow. Getting into a trial is like getting access to the future – and isn’t that what the battle against cancer is all about?
Each of these efforts start with you and your doctor. But don’t wait for a diagnosis to make your cancer plan. If you live in a Covid hot zone, you take extra precautions. Similarly, a one-in-three lifetime chance of getting cancer is a risk worth planning for. Know your genes. Make healthy choices. And if you have a predisposition for a particular kind of cancer, do whatever you can to get screened early and often.
Don’t wait for the system to save you. Instead, do all that you can to save yourself.