Men’s Health Month: Steps to Reduce Cancer Risks and Lead Healthier Lives

June is Men’s Health Month and the perfect time for a refresher on some things men can do to improve their overall health and wellness, reduce their cancer risks, and improve the odds of catching some cancers in their earliest stages.

One of the most important steps is also the easiest:  see your doctor.

Annual physicals are essential to leading a healthy lifestyle. They ensure that appropriate health screenings are conducted and preventive vaccinations including the flu, shingles, HPV, and most likely COVID-19 are given. The physical is an ideal opportunity to identify potential issues and discuss concerns the patient or physician may have. It is also a good time to review factors, including family history, which can impact risk for cancers and other diseases and can guide screening decisions.

Preventative Maintenance

This year’s annual exam is especially important for those who put off seeing their physician during the pandemic – care delays that have driven an uptick in later-stage cancer diagnoses due to missed screenings and, in some cases, preventable advancement of the disease from delayed treatment.

One of these is colorectal cancer, which has seen a troublesome uptick among younger adults and is now the leading cause of cancer deaths in men ages 20-49. The alarming trend prompted the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) in May to change its stance and recommend screenings begin at age 45 and continue through at least age 75. Colonoscopy remains the preferred screening for colorectal cancers, particularly as any polyps that are found can be immediately removed and sent for testing. However, lab tests and other less invasive options are also available – but are likely to be followed by a colonoscopy in the case of abnormal results.

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death (behind lung cancer) and the second most common cancer (behind skin cancer) in men. To promote early identification of prostate issues, the USPSTF recommends that men between the age of 55 and 69 decide about prostate-specific-antigen (PSA) testing in consultation with their physician. It also recommends against PSA testing in men aged 70 and over. Those who are at a higher risk of prostate cancer, including African-American men and men whose father or brother had the disease, should speak with their doctors about earlier screenings—in some cases by age 45. Currently, Medicare and many private insurance plans provide coverage for an annual PSA test for all Medicare-eligible men aged 50 and older.

Though uncommon, breast cancer should not be overlooked as about 1 in every 100 cases occurs in a man. The risk goes up for those with a family history or inherited mutations in certain genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2. Age, a history of radiation or hormone therapy, liver disease, and conditions that affect the testicles (e.g., injury to, swelling in or surgical removal) can all increase the risk of breast cancer, as can being overweight or obese.

Small Steps with Big Impacts

Screenings and annual exams are important steps, but there are other steps men can take to improve their overall health and reduce their cancer risks. Maintaining a healthy weight through proper nutrition and exercise is a big one, as are limiting alcohol, getting plenty of rest and other steps that strengthen the immune system.

But all these actions pale in comparison to the impact of quitting smoking.

Smoking is the leading cause of premature, preventable death, causing about 480,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S. It harms nearly every bodily organ and organ system and is associated with innumerable malignancies – cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.

Smoking also causes heart disease, stroke, aortic aneurysm, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, age-related macular degeneration, and cataracts, and worsens asthma symptoms in adults. And smokers are at higher risk for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other airway infections. It also causes inflammation and impairs immune function.

Make it Happen

Simply put, the message every man should take from Men’s Health Month is to carve out just an hour each year to have that annual physical. For smokers, the primary message is equally concise: quit.

Both actions can, quite literally, save a life.