What doctors tell their friends about preventing cancer

These specialists get cornered everywhere from family reunions to Facebook by people feeling spooked by the C word. Here's the real and reassuring advice they pass along; use it to take control of your health.
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You don't have to give up sweets

"Lots of people I know think that sugar causes cancer so you should avoid it at all costs. It's true that cancer cells do utilize sugar to grow, but when friends tell me proudly, 'I've cut sweets out of my diet completely,' I tell them, 'You don't need to do that.' Now, that's not to say you should indulge in all the soda and cupcakes you want, because data shows that a diet packed with empty calories from sugar-filled processed foods or soft drinks can up your cancer risk. But if you're eating right, filling your plate with healthy food, it's fine to have the occasional sweet treat. A close friend was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, and even in her situation, enjoying, say, a cookie or slice of pie is more than okay." —Nam Tran, M.D., neuro-oncologist and surgeon at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, FL

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Got an abnormal pap smear? Stop smoking, pronto!

"Up to 80 percent of women have been exposed to the HPV virus by the time they hit middle age, so it's not surprising for me to hear about this diagnosis from my friends. Most women with HPV do not develop cervical cancer. However, it's not unusual for someone to go in for their Pap test and get abnormal results that can indicate precancer. More than one has said to me, 'There's nothing I can do though, right?' My reply? 'Uh—yeah, there is!' Once the precancerous cells are removed, you should stop smoking to minimize the chance of a recurrence. Research has shown that carcinogens found in tobacco actually show up in a woman's cervical mucus, and those carcinogens create a greater likelihood that HPV will be persistent, upping your risk of developing full-blown cervical cancer. Another reason to ditch the cigs!" —Lauren Streicher, M.D., associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University in Chicago and author of The Essential Guide to Hysterectomy

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Play mole detective with your pals

"Last summer, I was having a lovely time with some houseguests by a pool, and one of my friends walked past me in his swim trunks. Suddenly, I noticed a dark spot on his back. 'I think you have a melanoma!' I blurted out. 'That little mole?' he replied. 'I haven't had time for a doctor to take a look at it, but I'm not worried.' I told him, 'That's not just a mole. Come into my office and we'll find out what it is for sure.' It did turn out to be melanoma. Only a doctor can diagnose a suspicious mole as skin cancer, but really anyone can spot one. That's why monthly self-exams are so important—and friends can examine areas we may not see, like the back and scalp. So be sensitive to your own instincts that tell you something on a friend or spouse has changed. Any mole that looks suspicious, appears out of nowhere, or changes in color or size should be checked by a physician." —Sandra Read, M.D., spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation

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Snack on some cancer-fighting nuts

"I tell my family and friends to eat an ounce of any kind of nut they like per day; research I've just done shows this may powerfully prevent you from getting cancer. My study showed an 11-percent drop in cancer risk for those who ate 160 calories' worth of tree nuts or peanuts [about an ounce, and no, peanut butter doesn't count] on a daily, consistent basis. We think this could be because one or more minerals in nuts affect the metabolic pathways in your body in a good way—say, nuts may reduce the inflammation that directly causes some cancer cells to grow. Our study also suggested that people who eat nuts are less likely to put on weight. That's great, because obesity is another cancer risk, so there's an additional layer of cancer prevention for you." —Charles Fuchs, M.D., professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston

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Don't avoid this lifesaving test

"Friends of mine who haven't had a colonoscopy worry about how uncomfortable the procedure is. But I tell them that's no reason to gamble with their health. Screening can spot polyps and other changes in the colon so early that you can be treated before they even develop into cancer. You should have the test starting at age 50, or earlier if your doctor feels that your family history warrants it. I also tell my pals: The procedure is the easy part; you're safely put under sedation so you'll be feeling no pain. Truthfully, by the time you're done preparing for the test—especially drinking that liquid you're given beforehand—the most uncomfortable part is over. So schedule that appointment, and go through with it." —Armando Sardi, M.D., surgical oncologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore

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Making just one diet change can cut your cancer risk

"I tell my friends and relatives that fresh fruit absolutely needs to be in their daily diet; studies have suggested that consuming it is associated with a reduced risk of cancer. The most potent fruits are strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, cherries, and red grapes. To make getting them in even easier, pick up those prepared fresh fruit cups at the grocery store. I buy them every week for my clinic staff and walk around delivering them personally, saying, 'This is the way you can prevent cancer!'" —Gerald Gehr, M.D., oncologist/hematologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Nashua, NH

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