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Preventing Infection-Related Cancers

Stomach, liver, and cervical cancer are preventable cancers and mostly related to chronic infections. In this article, let’s talk about decreasing the risk of such cancers through lifestyle, screening, and treatment. Preventing infection-related cancers is a low-hanging fruit in the US, with a strong healthcare infrastructure.

The following cancers don’t make up the most common cancers, but since they are so easy to prevent, they are worth addressing.

Infections That Cause Cancer

There are many organisms that could potentially lead to cancer when they infect the human body long enough. Fortunately, most just have an association with cancers and the rest only rarely progress to cancer.

The following are infections that can cause cancer, and they are preventable.

1. Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer screening through a Pap test is incredibly effective at catching early cell changes on the surface of the cervix. These can then be monitored or treated to prevent cervical cancer.

We also have the HPV vaccine, which is incredibly effective at decreasing the chance of getting infected with the high-risk strains of this virus, which lead to cervical cancer.

There is some data to show that the same vaccine can also decrease the risk of anal and oropharyngeal cancer. We have less than 50% adoption of the vaccine in the US, while other countries have more than 70%, and their lower cervical cancer rates demonstrate the potential link.

It’s important to highlight that HPV is a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of cervical cancer. Other factors can increase the risk of the HPV virus causing cellular changes that may lead to cervical cancer:

  • STDs
  • Smoking
  • Higher childbirth rate
  • Long-term oral contraceptive use

2. Stomach Cancer

Helicobacter Pylori is the bacteria responsible for certain types of stomach cancer, and it’s much more prevalent in some other countries, but we still see it here in the US.

Only a small fraction of those infected with this bacteria will develop cancer. There are many reasons why this is the case, but we know certain factors can increase the risk of this bacteria actually leading to cancer, and they include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Salt-preserved foods
  • Low fresh fruit and vegetable diet
  • Diet high in processed meat, grilled or barbecued meat, and fish

We can screen for H. Pylori and we can treat the bacteria. The tough thing is knowing who to treat since, as mentioned above, most people with this infection likely won’t develop cancer from this bacteria.

3. Liver Cancer

Nearly a million people died of this cancer globally in 2022, according to this article. The majority of the cases of hepatocellular carcinoma seem to be due to chronic infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Other risk factors that would increase the risk of these cancers, whether the person is or isn’t infected with hepatitis B or C virus, include:

  • Aflatoxin exposure
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Tobacco smoking

The hepatitis B vaccine is quite effective at preventing infection with hepatitis B. The risk is already quite low in the US unless you work in healthcare or other industries where exposure is high.

Hepatitis C now has some very solid treatments with a high chance of clearing the infection forever.

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