World Cancer Day

February 4th, 2022

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February 4th is World Cancer Day. What does this word mean to you? The word “cancer” evokes many emotions for myself - anger that it’s robbed me of too many loved ones, and fear for myself, my relatives, and my children. It also evokes empathy towards others whose lives has been impacted by this terrible disease. Today, I wanted to share some interesting facts about cancer, carcinogens, and how we can lower our risk for cancer.

Part 1 - 5 Interesting Facts About Cancer

  1. Hippocrates (regarded as the father of medicine) is credited with the origin for the word “cancer”. Hippocrates used the terms carcinos and carcinoma to describe tumours. In Greek, these words refer to a crab, likely due to the fact that the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer resembled a crab to him. (1)
  2. The oldest description of cancer goes back to around 3000 B and was discovered in Egypt. (1)
  3. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. Heart disease is the number one leading cause of death. (2)
  4. At least ONE THIRD of common cancers are preventable. (3) (4)
  5. Being overweight or having obesity is linked to a higher risk of getting 13 types of cancer. These cancers make up 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States each year. (5)

Part 2 - What are carcinogens? (6)

carcinogen is an agent with the capacity to cause cancer in humans. Carcinogens may be natural (e.g. aflatoxin, which is produced by a fungus). Carcinogens may also be synthetic. An example of this would be bisphenol A (i.e. BPA).

There are two commonly used systems for classifying and identifying carcinogens. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and has evaluated more than 1,000 agents on their cancer-causing potential. Only a little over 100 agents are classified within “Group 1 - carcinogenic to humans.” Most items they have evaluated are listed as “Group 2A - probably carcinogenic to humans”, “Group 2B - possibly carcinogenic to humans” or “Group 3 - unknown risk”.

IARC Monographs Classification of Night Shift Work: Source.

In this monograph, the IARC classified Night Shift Work as “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans”.

One limitation of the IARC classification system is that it does not assess the risk associated with exposure. For example, IARC classifies tobacco smoking as carcinogenic, but does not assess how much (5 cigarettes vs. one pack-per-day), or how long. Also, two things may belong in the same classification group (e.g. tobacco smoking and consumption of processed meats), but the risk of cancer from exposure will differ. In other words, smoking cigarettes every day does not confer the same cancer risk as eating 2 slices of bacon every day.

Compound Interested created a short and sweet post explaining this in a bit more detail. Click the image below or read it here.

A Rough Guide to IARC Carcinogen Classifications. Full post here.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP updates its Report on Carcinogens (RoC) every few years.

The Report on Carcinogens (RoC) identifies 2 groups of agents:

The 15th edition of the RoC includes about 250 substances and exposures.

Instead of looking at substances in isolation (individually), The Halifax Project was published in the journal Carcinogenesis in 2015 and hypothesizes that the same biological mechanisms by which many known carcinogens cause cancer can also be achieved through the combined effects of multiple chemicals (at low doses). This study was conducted by several hundred scientists from around the world. (7)

In simple terms, their hypothesis is that low-dose exposures to disruptive chemicals that are not individually carcinogenic may be capable of instigating and/or enabling carcinogenesis through its combined effects.

What is highly concerning is that we are exposed to chemicals everywhere. The purists will say “All things are chemicals. Water is H2O.” While they’re not wrong - I will use the term “chemicals” here to be interpreted as the harmful kind. From what we slather on our skin (e.g. creams, skincare, lotions, body wash, makeup), to what we breathe in (e.g. perfumes, scents, car air freshener), to what we use to clean our home, we are exposed to and subjected to a surprising amount of unique chemicals each day.

According to the website, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market. Under U.S. law, cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market. (8) Cosmetic manufacturers have a legal responsibility for the safety and labeling of their products. The FDA also doesn’t test the ingredients of these products for efficacy or safety. Of the more than 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than 1% have been rigorously tested for human safety. (9)

Bottom line: Don’t let the labels fool you. You are the biggest advocate for the health and wellbeing of you and your family. Look up the ingredients for safety.

Part 3 - 5 Ways to Lower Your Cancer Risk (10) (4)

  1. Get regular cancer screening tests. Regular screening tests can catch some cancers early, when they’re small, have not spread, and are easier to treat. With cervical and colon cancers, these tests can even prevent cancer from developing in the first place. Talk with your doctor or primary care provider about the tests for breast, cervicalcolonlung, and prostate cancers.

  2. Be physically active. Physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, endometrium, prostate, and colon cancer. It also reduces the risk of other serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
    How much exercise or physical activity do you need?
    • Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (equal to a brisk walk) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (makes your heartbeat and breathing faster, and makes you sweat) each week, preferably spread throughout the week. I would aim for a 30 minute workout everyday.
    • Kids should get at least 1 hour of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity at least 3 days a week.

  3. Avoid tobacco and limit alcohol. Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of cancer and smoking cessation is one of the best things we can do to reduce our risk of cancer. Use of tobacco has been found to cause around 15 different types of cancer including oral cancers, lung, liver, stomach, bowel and ovarian cancers, as well as some types of leukaemia (cancers of the blood).
    In its Report on Carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen.
    • Men should have no more than 2 drinks a day and women no more than 1.
    • One drink is equal to about 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof liquor.

National Cancer Institute: Alcohol Fact Sheet Source.

  1. Get to a healthy weight. As mentioned before, being overweight or having obesity is linked to a higher risk of getting 13 types of cancer. While there’s no one size fits all approach, behavioural and lifestyle changes can make a huge impact. You may need to change what you eat, when you eat, how you eat, or even move more. Each person’s approach to obtaining a healthy weight will look different.

  2. Limit your exposure to known or suspected carcinogens.Many of the items in your home may contain known or suspected carcinogens such as phthalates, formaldehyde, synthetic fragrances, and synthetic colouring. Be sure to read the labels and check the ingredients in your shampoo, nail polish, make up, skincare, household cleaning products, etc. Even the plastic containers which store these products need to be scrutinized. Remember the bisphenol A scare a few years ago, resulting in “BPA free” labelling on certain plastics? Bisphenol A is now often replaced with bisphenol S (BPS) which is just as estrogenic as BPA. (11) 

As we learn more and more about cancer, I feel another emotion within me - hope. We are detecting and screening for cancers earlier. We have so many more treatment options compared to just 10-15 years ago. We are learning more about our genetics (the “seed”), our environment, and how we can influence the conditions (the “soil”) to reduce our risk for cancer. Together, let’s work on our “soil” so that disease cannot thrive.

If you enjoyed this blog post and are interested in learning more about all things health related, be sure to read my previous posts and follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Yours in health,

- Janet


  1. Understanding What Cancer Is: Ancient Times to Present
  2. Causes of Death
  3. Key Cancer Facts
  4. Explore the key issue: Cancer prevention and risk reduction
  5. Obesity and Cancer
  6. Determining if Something Is a Carcinogen
  7. Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead
  8. Prohibited & Restricted Ingredients in Cosmetics
  9. Explained: the toxic threat in everyday products, from toys to plastic
  10. 6 Steps to Help Lower Your Cancer Risk
  11. BPA replacement, BPS, hinders heart function, study reveals
  12. Abstract IA16: The Halifax Project: Can a chemical mixture be a virtual carcinogen?

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