Secondary cancers: Factors increasing your risk

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Secondary cancers: Factors increasing your risk

One of the biggest fears if not the biggest fear of any cancer survivor is a secondary cancer developing. A secondary cancer is a term used to describe cancer that has spread (metastasized) from the place where it first started to another part of the body.  They basically are the same type of cancer as the original (primary) cancer.  For example, cancer cells may spread from the breast (primary cancer) to form new tumors in the lung (secondary cancer). The cancer cells in the lung are just like the ones in the breast.

Several factors can make it more likely to develop a secondary cancer. Some of these factors are controllable while others are not. All cancer survivors should have a discussion with their doctor to find out what they can do to lower their odds of developing cancer again.  Just as important is to know what screenings and how often they should be done to catch any new cancers early.

There can be certain factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing a secondary cancer which include the following:

·      Childhood cancer

Any person who had a childhood cancer before the age of 15 will need to be on top of their health throughout their life.  It is vital that parents of children younger than 15 who have had cancer, to keep accurate medical histories from the beginning of diagnosis to chronicle medication, treatment, and other factors. The increased risk for secondary cancer in these children often results from a hereditary cancer syndrome, treatments performed that may have caused cancer-causing side effects, or the fact that as people age they may develop common cancers, including colon, breast, or prostate cancer. A good example of a childhood cancer that may increase a person’s lifelong risk of cancer is Li-Fraumeni syndrome.  Li-Fraumeni syndrome can lead to sarcoma, leukemia, and brain and breast cancers.  The treatment a child may have received to combat their cancer can also make them more vulnerable to future malignancies.

·      Age

Sometimes as a cancer survivor ages, an unrelated cancer may develop due to the increase in years. As the years pass by, they often bring more chronic conditions, more exposure to environmental factors increasing the risk, and a lower ability of cells to repair damage. It is well known that most men in their 80s and 90s develop some form of prostate cancer and if they had colon, lung, or other cancers earlier in their life, it’s not that unexpected. Similarly, skin cancer is also very prevalent among second-diagnosis situations.

·      Family history

Everyone, regardless of a personal history of cancer, should know their family history of cancer. Knowing about genetics is a good base for treatments and if there are multiple family members who all developed a particular cancer, that’s a very strong indication that the family carries a genetic susceptibility. Genes cannot be changed but anyone can be tested for genetic changes that are associated with increased cancer risk.  If a person is found to be at a higher risk, then they need to be screened and take other preventive measures.

·      Prior cancer treatment

Past and current treatments, including radiation, chemotherapy and certain drugs, also have risks association with developing secondary and unrelated cancers. Even though standard cancer treatments are necessary to cure the disease, they also can trigger cellular changes that make a person vulnerable to a secondary cancer. Doctors will always make every effort possible to fine-tune the treatments for cancer to minimize future cancer risks.

·      Lifestyle

The one factor within the control of a cancer survivor is lifestyle choices. Each day, all of us make choices that can influence our long-term health and the risk of developing a secondary cancer.  To reduce that risk as much as possible, here are several lifestyle habits all cancer survivors need to embrace to lower their chance of ever being told for a second time, “Your cancer has come back:”

·      Eat a nutritious diet choosing cancer-fighting foods such as leafy green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables, beans and peas, berries, cherries, tomatoes, and nuts.

·      Exercise at least five days a week for 30 minutes.

·      Keep weight within a healthy range for age and height

·      If a person smokes, they need to quit and all cancer survivors should avoid secondhand smoke.

·      Drink alcohol in moderation if at all.

·      Wear sunscreen year-round of at least 30 SPF with UVA/UVB sun protection.