Top cancer prevention tips from doctors

Health professionals share what they do in their everyday lives to prevent the Big C.

19 April 2012
by Glynis Horning

The skin specialist: Dr Len Nel, dermatologist

"I wear sunglasses every time I go out – even on overcast days, UV penetrates clouds, and it's important to protect against eyelid cancer and cataracts. All sunglasses block UV, but the more expensive ones are also usually optically correct. I slap sunscreen factor 30 to 50 on all exposed areas, but don’t underestimate the value of clothing either – unlike sunscreen, you don’t have to remember to reapply it, and you can’t sweat it off! There’s a common belief that lighter colours offer different protection to dark ones, but the protection rests simply in the weave of the fabric. A cotton T-shirt of any colour is usually adequate.

"Lastly, I wear a wide-brim hat outdoors – it's the equivalent of using factor five sunscreen on your face and offers 75 percent protection against rays! Also, exercise is essential, so I run in the evenings and on weekends whenever I can."

The cancer specialist: Dr Carl Albrecht, head of research at the Cancer Association of SA

"I don't heat any plastic in contact with food or drink. I choose high omega-3 fatty acids in canola oil, canola margarine and oily fish like snoek, salmon and pilchards. And I eat 'high-powered' anti-cancer foods such as curcumin (a chemical in the spice turmeric), broccoli, garlic and pomegranate, and I drink Rooibos tea to increase the body’s master antioxidant, glutathione.

"I also avoid potato crisps due to acrylamide (a compound in starchy foods cooked at high temperatures). But most of all, I avoid all smoke like poison and don’t tolerate indoor smoke – smokers must go outside!"

The oral specialist: Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Professor of Public and Oral Health, University of Pretoria

"I don't smoke, because 60 percent of all oral cancer is attributable to tobacco use – from smoking cigarettes (both manufactured and own-rolled), cigars, pipes, even hookahs or hubbly pipes, as well as from taking snuff.

"I drink alcohol only occasionally, and when I do I brush my teeth twice daily because bacteria in the mouth (from plaque accumulated after eating) converts alcohol into carcinogens."

The eye specialist: Dr Nina Kriel, optometrist, director of the SA Optometric Association

"We're all aware of the link between UV radiation and skin damage, but perhaps less aware of the damage that UV can do to our eyes. UV radiation can lead to cataracts, skin cancer around the eyes and pterigia. I wear UV-blocking lenses (either clear or tinted) to prevent or delay the onset of these, and a hat whenever I'm in direct sun.

"I also believe that regular eye examinations are vital. Your eyecare practitioner will examine your eyelids with a microscope, looking at the eyelash area in particular for bumps, redness, scaling or hair loss. Pterigia are fleshy, elevated growths that we see commonly in practice. They grow from the white part of the eye (typically on the nasal side) towards the coloured part, and can become red and irritated at times. These are abnormal, but usually non-cancerous. We watch them closely, though, to clearly distinguish them from the less common squamous cell carcinoma."

The urologist: Dr Anthony Grizic

"I don't smoke – smoking is linked to transitional cell cancer of the urinary tract most often seen in the bladder. The lag period is often greater than 20 years, so it presents later than lung cancer. The risk for these cancers remains, although reduced, even after you give up smoking. And the recurrence rate even after treatment is increased if you don't stop smoking.

"I also eat sensibly – the World Health Organization states that 30 percent of cancers in industrialised countries and 20 percent of cancers in developing countries are diet-related.

"The lower incidence of prostate cancer in Asian populations has been attributed to their high intake of soy products which are rich in phyto-oestrogens. Frequent consumption of cooked tomato products is also associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopenes, a powerful antioxidant which is also found in red grapefruit and watermelon."

The dietician: Berna Harmse, dietician and president of the Dietetic Association of SA (ADSA)

"We have a family history of cancer, so prevention is important for me personally, and not just for the patients I see every day. I make sure to add enough fibre to my diet: wholegrain breakfast cereal every morning is a must, coupled with enough fluid to meet my need of 30ml per kilogram body weight.

"Equally important is to keep things colourful. I try to eat at least one fruit a day and loads of greens either for lunch or supper. I also take an omega-3 supplement every day for its anti-inflammatory action."

The homeopath: Dr Taryn Turner, registered homeopath and qualified advanced doula

"I've been a vegetarian for 23 years. There's evidence to suggest that a vegetarian diet is associated with a decreased risk for blood, bone marrow, bladder and stomach cancer. A vegetarian diet usually contains more fibre and roughage than a meat-based diet and more fresh fruits and vegetables. It's this increase in antioxidants that lowers the risk of cancer, coupled with the absence of consumed haemoglobin and myoglobin, which is found in meat. I also try to eat organic produce where possible, and juice fresh fruit and vegetables to get in my daily quota.

"For fellow coffee fans, coffee in moderation has also been shown to decrease your risk of prostate and breast cancer. It contains antioxidants and improves the action of insulin in the body. And it seems it doesn’t matter whether you have normal or decaffeinated coffee. This news made me enjoy my daily java even more!"

Read More: Cancer Super Section