A trio of new studies from the University of Oxford suggests that aspirin is worth testing as a simple way to help prevent cancer. But these are preliminary findings, and you shouldn’t start taking an aspirin a day without having a conversion with your doctor. That’s because aspirin has side effects that could offset any possible cancer-fighting benefit, including stomach upset, gastrointestinal bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain). The Oxford studies couldn’t determine cause and effect. The only way to tally up the true balance of benefits and risks of aspirin for cancer prevention is with trials specifically designed to do that. Several are underway or in the planning stages. But you can work to prevent cancer right now by avoiding tobacco in all its forms, exercising, and making other healthy changes.
Many people have trouble quitting smoking even after learning they have cancer, according to a new study from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Five months after learning they had cancer, just over one-third (37%) of smokers diagnosed with lung cancer and two-thirds (66%) of those with colorectal cancer were still smoking. The results underscore how difficult it can be to quit smoking. A diagnosis of cancer can be a powerful motivator, but it isn’t always enough—extra help is often needed to quit. Kicking a smoking habit is good for health anytime. It is even more important after a diagnosis of cancer.
Many prostate cancers grow very slowly and never escape the prostate. They cause no symptoms, and never threaten health or life. Yet almost 90% of men told they have prostate cancer opt for immediate treatment with surgery or radiation therapy—which often cause trouble getting or keeping an erection and an assortment of urinary problems. Yesterday, a panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health recommended that many men with localized, low-risk prostate cancer be closely monitored, and that treatment be delayed until there was evidence that the disease was progressing.
The death of Kara Kennedy, the only daughter of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, at age 51 from an apparent heart attack while exercising offers a reminder of the possible long-term effects of cancer and its treatment. In 2002, Kennedy was diagnosed with lung cancer. After having part of her lung removed, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She lived for another nine years, in apparently good health. One of the hazards of some cancer survivors face is that the treatments used to fight cancer—drugs, radiation, and hormones—sometimes damage the heart and arteries.
Is sunlight addictive? That provocative idea was raised by Dr. David Fisher, chief of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in a presentation at Harvard Medical School. He cited new evidence suggesting that being in the sun stimulates the so-called “pleasure center” in the brain and releases a rush of feel-good chemicals like endorphins, much as happens with addictive substances or activities. Why? Humans need vitamin D to survive. Once upon a time, it came mainly from skin—skin exposed to sunlight makes vitamin D. So the feelings of pleasure we get from sunlight may be part of a survival mechanism to get us the vitamin D we need.
Routinely checking smokers for early signs of lung cancer hasn’t translated into fewer deaths. New results from the National Lung Screening Trial indicate that yearly low-dose CT scans can reduce the death rate from lung cancer by 20%, which could save up to 30,000 lives a year. Despite the encouraging results, it is too early to recommend that heavy smokers immediately begin getting yearly CT scans for lung cancer. The physical, emotional, and monetary costs of saving these lives with yearly screening would be enormous. Researchers must look carefully at the financial and personal costs to determine who, if anyone, might benefit most from lung cancer screening.
After two decades of dithering, the FDA has announced its proposed new rules for sunscreens. Under the rules, sunscreen makers would be expected to test products for their ability to screen out ultraviolet B rays (UVB), which are largely responsible for sunburn) and ultraviolet A rays (UVA), which contribute to premature aging of the skin, wrinkles, and the development of skin cancer. Products that protect against both UVA and UVB will be labeled “Broad Spectrum.” The FDA is also proposing an upper limit of 50 for the sun protection factor (SPF) and wants to get rid of claims that a sunscreen is waterproof, sweatproof, or a “sunblock.”
The back and forth about whether or not cell phones cause brain cancer is likely to go on for a while. Until the issue gets settled, there are some things that folks who like to reduce their risks (even ones that may never pan out to be substantial risks) can do to minimize the amount of energy their cell phone wafts into their heads. These include holding your phone an inch away from your ear, using a Bluetooth or wired headset, using the phone’s speakerphone feature, and choosing a phone that transmits at a lower power level.
An expert panel assembled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met last week to assess what, if any, cancer threat cell phones pose to the 5 billion or so people who use them. After reviewing hundreds of studies, the IARC panel concluded that cell phone use may be connected to two types of brain cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma. But the evidence on which the panel based its conclusion is weak or, as the IARC called it, “limited.” The move puts cell phones in the IARC’s Group 2B category of cancer-causing agents. Things in Group 2B are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other denizens of this group include coffee, pickled vegetables, bracken ferns, and talcum powder. Harvard Health editor P.J. Skerrett is more worried being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than about getting brain cancer from a phone. For more cautious souls, the FDA offers suggestions for reducing your exposure to energy from a cell phone.
A new study challenges the conventional wisdom that heart-healthy omega-3 fats from fish, walnuts, and other sources are good for the prostate and that artery-damaging trans fats are bad for it. Suzanne Rose, editor of Harvard Health’s Annual Report on Prostate Diseases, explains.