By DR. MELISSA BERLIN
For Montclair Local
This series is written by practitioners at Summit Medical Group on health-related topics.
This month’s author is family physician Dr. Melissa Berlin, who practices in Glen Ridge.
Almost a year ago, I lost my best friend to colon cancer. When I looked at the calendar, I realized the anniversary of his death was the same day I was scheduled to speak with the community about cancer prevention at the Montclair Public Library. It felt like a fitting way to honor his legacy. My friend’s passing has inspired me to do everything I can to stay healthy for my four beautiful children and to share that knowledge with others.
Some 40 to 50 percent of all cancers in the U.S. can be prevented. Cancer is caused by a variety of factors as diverse as mutated genes, toxins in the environment, and even certain viruses.
Some ways to prevent cancer are obvious: quit smoking, go for regular screenings, and stay out of the sun.
But what most of my patients do not know is that being obese is an equally major risk factor for developing cancer. While obesity is usually thought of as the culprit behind heart disease and diabetes, it is also linked to 12 different types of cancers. Fat cells do not just lie dormant — they secrete toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc on the body. Over the last decade, a growing body of research has shown that one of the most important steps you can take to prevent cancer is to maintain a healthy weight, in addition to eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly.
Shortly after my friend’s death, I was four months postpartum and still carrying around the extra baby weight. I decided it was time to make a big life change. I joined a gym that had interval group training and dramatically changed my diet. A year later, I had lost 25 pounds.
As a physician and a mom with four kids under the age of 9, I understand that diet and exercise are not easy. My advice is to find a way to make working out manageable for you. To reduce your risk, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
As soon as I get home, I change into my gym clothes. Once the kids are in bed, I head out to my class. For me, the key to healthy eating is meal planning and prep. On Sunday, I try to cook large batches of healthy dinners that will last for the entire week. When I think ahead it is easier to avoid processed foods, takeout, and red meats.
Eating a plant-based diet can protect you against cancer. Fill your plate with veggies, fruits, and whole grains. I also bring a bag of nutritious snacks, such as hard-boiled eggs and cucumbers, with hummus, with me to work.
Staying up to date with screenings is another important step. If there is no family history of cancer, both men and women should have their first colonoscopy at age 50. While colonoscopy is preferred since it can detect both cancers and polyps that could turn into cancer in the future, there are other options for colon cancer screening such as stool tests, which you can discuss with your doctor.
Women ages 21 to 65 should have a Pap smear every three years; after age 30 the interval can be every five years if co-testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV). Even if you are not due for a Pap test, you should still visit your gynecologist yearly. Annual or biennial mammograms are recommended for women beginning at age 50. Women who are at increased risk based on personal health factors or family history should be evaluated on an individual basis.
If you get significant sun exposure or have fair skin, you should have a yearly skin check. And if you are between the ages of 55 and 80 and you currently smoke or quit smoking within the last 15 years, and you smoked the equivalent of at least one pack per day for 30 years, you qualify for a Low-Dose Cat Scan (LDCT) to screen for lung cancer. An LDCT is recommended every year for three or more consecutive years depending on the results.
There are also two vaccines you should know about. Gardasil-9, which is recommended at age 11 but can be given up to age 45, protects against 90 percent of all cervical cancers, as well as some vaginal, anal, head, and neck cancers caused by HPV. The Hepatitis B vaccine, which you probably had as a baby, also protects against liver cancer.
There are no guarantees in life. You can be the picture of good health and still get cancer. But if you keep your weight in check and eat healthy foods, the chances swing way in your favor.