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Cancer Prevention Guide for Millennials: Avoiding Risk Factors and Empowering Health

20 February 2024 | 7-mins read

The choices you make today can have a lasting impact on your health for decades to come, as many common lifestyle factors are closely linked to a higher risk of developing cancer and other critical illnesses. 

While you cannot control all health risks, making good lifestyle choices to help reduce risk of cancer and safeguarding your well-being with critical illness insurance are two important steps to protect your future. By making key changes now and avoiding risky behaviours to reduce risks of cancer, you can help safeguard your wellness and financial future with cancer protection through a critical illness insurance plan.

How your lifestyle choices and other factors affect your cancer risk

The choices you make every day, from what you eat to how much you exercise, can significantly affect your chances of getting cancer. Cancer risk factors include behaviours like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a diet high in processed foods, and a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of cancer over time. 

However, it is not just lifestyle choices that contribute to cancer risk. Genetics can also play a role1, as hereditary factors can increase your risk of developing certain cancers. Additionally, causative agents of cancer may include environmental factors such as exposure to toxic substances in the workplace, air pollution, and excessive sun exposure can also lead to an increased risk of cancer. 

Understanding these risks is important for making informed lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk of cancer. Protecting yourself with critical illness insurance can help too. 

1. Clearing the air on tobacco use and vaping

Tobacco use and vaping can have long-term health effects as they are linked to cancers that only show up later in life2. While the association with smoking and cancer is well known, it is also a major cause of at least 15 other conditions, including throat, mouth, oesophageal, and bladder cancers, as the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage cells in the lungs and throughout the body3.  According to the Singapore Cancer Society, smoking is a causative agent for up to 90% of lung cancers4

Vaping may be seen as a "safer" option, but this is a myth as it exposes you to harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene5, which can cause lung damage. 

Quitting is the only true way to reduce the risk of getting cancer from smoking. Thankfully, there are many resources available6 to help you quit. Additionally, you should try to make a plan to avoid triggers that cause smoking, distract yourself with something else such as eating a sweet, exercise to keep your mind occupied and ask your friends and family for encouragement. 

2. Shedding light on the dangers of sun exposure

Having fun in the sun is only natural. However, too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a causative agent of cancer. According to the World Health Organisation7, long-term UV exposure is a major causal factor for non-melanoma skin cancers, which are among the most common cancers globally. The choices you make today regarding sun protection can have a lasting impact on your health and risk of skin cancer as you age. Whilst the occasional sunburn may seem harmless, but the damage caused to your skin can increase the chances of getting cancer. 

The two most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma8. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form but and typically develops on sun-exposed areas such as the face, head, neck, and arms. Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form and appears on sun-exposed areas such as the face, neck lips, arms, and hands. Both skin cancers are not life-threatening if detected early. Early detection is critical, as regular self-exams for suspicious moles and lesions and yearly checks with a dermatologist can help catch skin cancer early when it is most treatable. 

To reduce your chances of getting skin cancer, limit your time in the sun, especially between 11am and 3pm when the UV rays are strongest9. Also, wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and continuously reapply if you are sweating or swimming. UV-blocking sunglasses, hats, and lightweight clothing can also help shield you from sun exposure. 

3. The sobering reality of alcohol consumption

Alcohol consumption, especially heavy or binge drinking, can significantly increase the risk of certain cancers10, including liver, mouth, stomach, breast, throat, and colon cancers. Excessive alcohol use, which is having more than four drinks in one sitting, is a major risk factor for liver cancer.

However, even light drinking is a cancer risk factor, as just one glass of wine a day can increase the risk for pharynx, oesophagus, and breast cancers11. Additionally, studies in the Unites States and Australia11 have found that women's postmenopausal breast cancer risk increases by 11% for each drink per day, and men's risk of developing prostate cancer increases by 8% for every two drinks per day.

Reducing your alcohol consumption can reduce the risk and may even decrease the chances of getting cancer, but quitting entirely is the only sure way to drastically reduce your risk of getting diagnosed with alcohol-associated cancers.

4. Feeding your cancer risk with an unhealthy diet

A diet high in processed foods, red meat, sugar, and unhealthy fats can increase your chances of getting cancer. You may even call it a "cancer diet", as processed meats such as beef, pork, sausages, and bacon have been linked to colon cancer. The World Health Organization has even classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen12 as there is evidence that it causes cancer. To put this into context, Group 1 carcinogens also include tobacco and asbestos.

Diets that are high in sugar, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats can also lead to conditions that can eventually lead to cancer, such as insulin resistance, weight gain, and inflammation13. In addition, being overweight or obese can also increase the risk of multiple cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon cancers. 

Eating a clean diet with whole fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can help reduce risks of colorectal cancer and other illnesses. Additionally, staying active through regular exercise and maintaining an optimal body weight can also help boost your immune system and help reduce risks of cancer.

5. Staying active against cancer

When it comes to physical activity and cancer, sedentary behaviour such as sitting, reclining, or lying down for extended periods of time is a risk factor for certain cancers14 such as breast and colorectal cancers. In addition, weight gain because of an unhealthy diet and sedentary behaviour can also increase the risk of associated cancers. According to the National Cancer Institute, staying active and exercising regularly is one of the best ways to reduce your cancer risk from a sedentary lifestyle by up to 45%14.  

Exercising for about 30 minutes most days of the week by walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or playing sports like badminton can improve your physical and mental health by reducing stress and anxiety.

By exercising regularly, maintaining a balanced diet, and avoiding harmful lifestyle activities like drinking and smoking, you can get on the right path to health and wellness while helping to reduce the risk of cancer.

6. Cancer causative agents in the environment

Work, living, and recreational areas can also impact your health, as exposure to toxic chemicals and pollutants can be an environmental cause of cancer. One of the more dangerous environmental risks comes from second-hand tobacco smoke and air pollution. 

Exposure to second-hand smoke at your home or workplace is harmful15, as it contains at least 60 chemicals that are known to cause lung cancer, coronary artery disease, and stroke. Meanwhile, it is possible to get lung cancer from air pollution16, as well as oesophageal, stomach, and pancreatic cancers. 

Staying out of environments where second-hand smoke may be present can help you avoid a potential cancer risk factor. However, avoiding air pollution may be more difficult. Wearing an N95 mask can help reduce your exposure to such pollution, but on days when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) is at unhealthy levels above 20017, it's advisable to stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary to go outside, and if you have to, make sure you mask up.

Safeguarding your financial future through critical illness insurance

Protecting your financial future can be as important as protecting your health and well-being by following a healthy lifestyle to reduce risks of cancer.  Making healthier choices such as limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding smoking, maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding too much sun exposure are all steps that can provide cancer protection.

However, reduced risk does not mean no risk. That is why it is important to go for regular health screenings based on age and health risks to detect critical illnesses18 early when they are more treatable.

Hospitalisation insurance is not the same as critical illness insurance. While hospitalisation/health insurance helps cover some costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and loss of income during treatment and recovery can be very costly. Critical illness insurance provides a lump sum payment if you are diagnosed with a covered condition such as cancer, heart attack or stroke. This payment can be used to supplement lost income, medical bills, rehabilitation, and living expenses. 

As a millennial in Singapore, it's important to think about your future wellness and make healthy lifestyle choices, go for recommended health screenings, and have adequate critical illness insurance coverage19 to protect yourself and your loved ones. 

Protection against the financial burden of critical illness.

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