8 Easy Ways to Prevent Childhood Cancer

Cute girl of school age in superhero costume

More than 9000 kids get cancer in the US every year (about 1 in 450). The most common are leukemias, lymphomas, and brain tumors, but there are many different kinds. If you would like up to date numbers, the  AAP has them here.

Cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases caused by the cells in a person’s body multiplying out of control. Cancer is separated into different types depending on what sort of cell it originated from (blood, brain, lung…) and if it invaded nearby body parts (a tumor) or spread to other organs (metastasis). That might be a smidge simplified, but you get the idea.

Your children’s genes, the DNA they inherit from you, influence their risk of cancer–not something you can change. But lifestyle and environment also influence their risk, and there you can have an impact.

That impact includes not only your kid’s exposures in childhood, but also the example they see in your behavior and the habits you establish that will carry forward into their adult lives. What you teach them in childhood can protect them throughout their lives.

What to do to lower your child’s risk of getting cancer:

  1. First, the obvious one: don’t use tobacco, and don’t allow anyone else to smoke around your kids. I know, easier said than done, but an estimated four out of five cancers are caused by tobacco. The poisons in tobacco damage DNA, increasing the incidence of 14 different cancers including lung, some leukemias, voice box, throat, liver, kidney… Secondhand smoke alone increases cancer risk by 25%. The sidestream smoke off the burning end of a cigarette has 3 times the carbon monoxide, 10 times the nitrosamines and hundreds of times the ammonia of exhaled smoke. Add to this that if you smoke, your child’s chances of becoming a daily addicted smoker increase by 25 times, boosting their risk even more. Just don’t. No excuse is good enough.
  2. Also well known: protect them from sunburns to prevent skin cancer. Use at least SPF15 and reapply through the day. Seek shade during peak hours. Stick a hat on their head that shades their face, and a pair of sunglasses on their nose.
  3. Feed them a healthy diet with lots of fiber, fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed meats and an overabundance of red meat and salt. A healthy diet helps your body remove harmful chemicals, prevent and repair damage to DNA, and block the formation of cancer causing chemicals. A less healthy diet has been linked to breast, mouth, esophagus and GI cancers.
  4. Encourage exercise. Exercise stabilizes levels of hormones like estrogen and insulin that have been linked to cancer. An active lifestyle decreases the incidence of breast, bowel, and uterine cancers.
  5. Keep them at a healthy body weight. Fatty tissue produces hormones that influence the way cells grow. Cell overgrowth is at the root of cancers. Obesity has been linked to breast cancer, esophageal and bowel cancers, and liver, kidney, pancreas and uterine cancers.
  6. Limit their exposure to chemicals. Indoor pesticides have recently been shown to  increase children’s risk of leukemia by 47%. Be aware of the chemicals you might be exposed to at your job, wear appropriate safety gear, and don’t bring poisons home on your clothes–cancer causing chemicals such as arsenic, benzene, and asbestos are still used in industry. Check the use instructions (do they need to be used in a well ventilated area?) and ingredients in the products you do use at home. You can check for harmful ingredients in household products at nih.gov. Store household chemicals such as cleaners, paints, degreasers, and strippers safely high up and locked away.
  7. In the “be a good example” category: limit your alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases the amount of cancer causing chemicals in your body, and affects hormone levels. It also amplifies the toxic effects of tobacco. Drinking alcohol increases your risk of breast, mouth, throat and bowel cancers.
  8. Avoid certain kinds of infections. Infection can increase cancer risk by causing chronic inflammation and suppressing the immune system. Hep B increases your kid’s risk, so get them the vaccine, and teach them to avoid iv drugs and indiscriminate sex. Be careful with tattoos: Hep C also increases risk, and 41% of it comes from tattoos. Helicobactor pylori  increases cancer risk–doctors look for it with reflux disease, gastritis and ulcers.  Human Papillomavirus  works by causing cells to divide rapidly (hence the appearance of a wart). We lose 4000 women to preventable cervical cancer yearly, and the incidence of oral cancers due to HPV is increasing dramatically. The CDC recently announced that the vaccine has decreased the incidence of HPV in teens by 2/3. Get your child the HPV vaccine when he or she hits 11 or 12.

Cancer risk factors seem to hit the hardest when a baby is still in the womb, and in adolescence when their bodies are rapidly growing and changing, so these are the times when a parent can absolutely have an effect in preventing cancer.

A healthy lifestyle stacks the deck in your child’s favor, dramatically decreasing their odds of getting cancer. Protect them from cancer causing sunburns and poisons, get those vaccines, establish good habits, and be a good example. There is no down side to a healthy diet, regular exercise, and limiting their exposure to toxins, and it may increase their chances of hanging around for a while.

Domesticated Momster

What’s the Deal With GMOs?

little baby gardener lost in the moment with the sun shinning in

“GMOs” are genetically modified organisms.

Humans have been genetically modifying organisms since we stood upright and developed our big brains. We originally did it by selective breeding. That’s why my Golden Retrievers have that long, beautiful–constantly shedding–golden fur, why broccoli exists, and why that ear of corn you munch on isn’t 2 inches long. We pick the animal or vegetable with traits we want, and we breed or plant those rather than the ones with traits we do not want.

What is different now is that we can modify at the level of the organism’s DNA. We can take the gene for the trait we want and insert it into the DNA of the animal or plant to create an entirely new organism with the preferred traits.

The first genetically modified mouse was bred in 1981; the first genetically modified plant in 1983. Since then, GMOs have taken off. Between 1996 and 2013 GMO crops increased by 100%. Recent stats estimate that 10% of the worlds croplands are planted with GMOs. 94% of the soybeans, 96% of the cotton, and 93% of the corn grown today are GMOs.

Concerns about GMOs include unease about GMO’s effect on the environment and the economy of farmers, and worries about the safety of food products.

Environmental worries arise because GMOs are created to be more herbicide and insect resistant, give a higher yield, have more nutrients, and be more drought resistant. The non-GMO varieties can’t compete economically. Farmers have to grow the improved variety in order to survive. Then, if all of the wheat in an area is one variety, and something evolves that kills that variety, we have a problem. We have placed all of our eggs in one basket.

Another worry is that the GMOs are created and owned. To get them you have to buy from the company that did the work to create them. How do you compete if you can’t afford their product? If there is drift from their fields into yours (pollen travels) have you stolen something?

Will we use more poisonous herbicides because our new plants aren’t hurt by them?

Health concerns generally arise because the science behind the creation of GMOs is pretty extreme. We imagine scientists creating zombie corn that will poison our children. Corn grown on a plant that is more resistant to drought is still corn, with no difference nutritionally. Extra nutrients developed into a GMO plant are thoroughly tested and approved before they can be sold.

The one real issue when food crops are developed with new proteins is that kids with allergies may be effected. The FDA requires proof of safety when foods that are commonly allergic (milk, eggs, wheat, fish, tree nuts, and legumes) are affected. All of our safety standards still apply.

The positives of GMOs are my happy place, as a certified geek.

  • GMOs can produce food in areas of the world that are less fertile or have problems with insects, so children who might otherwise starve will have food. Those foods can also be developed to resist spoilage.
  • Food can be grown that is more packed with nutrients. For example, a tomato might be developed that has protein to help develop strong muscles.
  • Scientists have developed bacteria that produce biofuels that are safer for the environment.
  • A breed of pig now exists that can digest phosphorus, thus decreasing water pollution and overgrowth of algae.
  • Bacteria can produce chemicals that do everything from clot milk to make cheese, to break down starch to make sugar.
  • Bacteria have been developed that produce human proteins. Previously, insulin came from pigs, and diabetics could become allergic to the medicine they needed to stay alive. We can now treat children with hemophilia with clotting factors that do not make it likely that they will, in the end, die of AIDs. We can produce human growth factor to treat some forms of dwarfism. Research is being done that may produce treatments for kids with cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and many forms of cancer.
  • A goat exists now that produces ATryn, an anticoagulant that decreases the chance of having a blood clot during childbirth, in its milk.
  • Scientists are developing animals that have organs that are compatible with human biology. This sounds questionable right up to the point where your child needs a lung transplant.
  • One I find particularly elegant: Scientists produced a male mosquito with a lethal gene, and released it in the Cayman Islands in 2010. The particular breed of mosquito was one that carried Dengue fever, and they decreased the population of that mosquito by 80%. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they could do that with the mosquito that carries the Zika virus–the one that is causing babies brains to not grow in utero?

In the end, GMOs are here to stay. There is no possible way to remove them from the planet even if we chose to. We enjoy the products of GMOs every day without even knowing geeks were involved, and the future possibilities are truly amazing. Gene therapy can cure diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell, diabetes and cancer. Transplantable organs can come from pigs rather than dead children. Biofuels to help the environment–the possibilities are endless.

Opponents are pushing for products to be labeled so that consumers can choose, but even that is next to impossible to implement. A growing number of products contain one or more ingredient from a GMO. How many products have corn oil or syrup? Where do you draw the line–if a food product was grown on a farm near a field with a GMO product, and was possibly cross pollinated, might it not be considered a GMO?

Certainly we need to monitor the science to make sure what it does is ethical and safe, but we do that every day in medicine and science, under the watchful eyes of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA.

What matters is that the food is available, safe, and nutritious. Junk food, sodas, and pesticides on your fruit are a much larger problem. A GMO apple is, nutritionally, an apple.

Domesticated Momster