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Mitigating the small risks: Jared Diamond on Cancer

8 February 2013

Ok ok, So Jared Diamond did not produce a book about cancer (though I think it would most certainly be interesting). But in a recent NY Times commentary he brings up an interesting point about small, repetitive risks we take:

“Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.”

(See the full article)

In many ways this parallels cancer risk; some things are indeed completely out of our control (for the time being with current science and technology) and these days most cancer “awareness” in my opinion simply plucks the tune of fear with the visceral chords of mortality and comes short of real education about cancer risk. Instead, many people are left with lingering anxiety and fear about the big, bad “C” and pin their hopes on researchers like myself to save them when the Emperor Of All Maladies comes knocking at the door.

I have previously described cancer risk as a bit like an umbrella (and apparently the National Cancer Institute has recently as well, see image):

“Can an umbrella save your life? Maybe. If you go out into the rain, you get wet. Get wet or stay wet often enough, and you’ll get sick. An umbrella won’t stop you from getting wet, but it will prevent you from getting too wet. And maybe it will keep you from getting so wet that you catch a chill and get sick. Cancer risk is a little like rain. It’s all around us, and it’s nearly impossible to be a living, breathing human being without getting wet from the rain from time to time. But, there are choices you can make and things you can do to create your umbrella against cancer. It cannot prevent you from ever getting cancer, just like an umbrella can’t prevent you from getting wet. But both can lessen your risk of getting sick, and leave you in a much healthier and happier state of being.”

Cancer prevention has been a previous topic in my blog, and aside from abstaining from smoking, too much UV exposure, radon exposure, HPV, Hepatitis, obesity, or untreated stomach ulcers, the one thing that I have seen convincing evidence in positively preventing cancer is habitual aerobic exercise.

But, tanning salons are still as popular as ever, and many young people in the US still take up smoking every year, despite monumentally better awareness of the lung cancer connection. Obesity is a tantalizingly complex personal and political issue, but the same concept applies: we all make many, many small decisions on a daily basis that affect our health. Cancer risk is just one of them. Embrace the sunscreen! Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Start cycling to work. Avoid the sweets. Salads make great lunches too. Avoid second hand smoke (or find a way to quit if you’re a smoker!). Develop a dialogue with your doctor about cancer prevention. Help your friends and family do the aforementioned as well!

We must be conscious of the effects of the little decisions we make every day as part of our individual, personal roadmap to living longer and happier. Understanding and mitigating these small risks can add up to big prevention. And maybe more healthy years for you, dear reader! In the meantime, feel free to send me your cancer prevention queries!


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