Did you know February is National Chocolate Lover's Month? Furthermore, the shortest month of the year is also African-American History Month, National Greek-American Heritage Month, Care About Your Indoor Health Month, National Cherry Pie Month, National Grapefruit Month, North Carolina Sweet Potato Month and National Snack Food Month. Of course most of us think of February as the home of Valentine's Day. Fittingly then, February is American Heart Month. But it is also National Cancer Prevention Month.
It might be surprising that those of us in cancer care want to bring attention to American Heart Month, but the truth of the matter is the connections between cancer and heart disease are strong. Heart disease and cancer are two of the most common illnesses in the United States, and they are the two most common causes of death for American adults. Thankfully mortality from both has dropped as both have evolved into manageable chronic diseases that patients can often live with for many years. Cancer and heart disease often occur together because they share common etiologies like age, smoking, obesity, and inactivity. Fortunately, prevention strategies for cancer also tend to be good for your heart, and vice-versa. Taking steps toward improving one's general health, while not a guarantee against developing either disease, will help make you stronger in the face of these and other potential co-morbidities.
The connection between heart disease and cancer is a hot topic in cancer research right now. We at UPCI/UPMC CancerCenter are studying the effects of aging in the laboratory to understand why aging cells (and people) are prone to heart disease and cancer and how these cellular and molecular changes might be avoided or delayed. Because large epidemiological studies show that a simple intervention like chronic aspirin administration can reduce death from heart disease and cancer, scientists are unraveling the relationship between inflammation and cancer and heart disease. But while we learn more, there is much that you can do.
By February, most people have abandoned their New Year's resolutions to eat healthier, exercise more and quit smoking. Instead of tossing these goals aside, February is a great time to recommit to some basic cancer prevention and heart health strategies. Smoking cessation is the most important decision you can make because smoking is a prime cause of heart disease and it is linked to a wide variety of cancers, including cancers of the lung, head and neck, cervix, pancreas, and colon. UPMC offers several resources to help you begin the cessation process. If you do not smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, it is time to stop! Perhaps you don't smoke, but you also don't exercise. Exercise, even something as simple as a short walk a few times a week, will not only strengthen your heart and your body, but also help ward off some of the seasonal depression the depths of winter can bring. Exercise also helps with weight control. Maintenance of a normal weight is vital to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer as we age.
Screening and prevention strategies are also crucial. You and your physician should monitor and control your cholesterol and triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar – all helpful in determining your overall heart health. Consulting regularly with your physician about how to take advantage of the documented benefits of cancer screening strategies like mammography, colonoscopy, and Paps smears is also one of the best steps you can take to protect your health.
Taking measures to control aspects of your health shouldn't be a frightening or daunting, task – it should an empowering one. As health care professionals we don't expect perfection in our patients – we are hardly perfect, ourselves. But we would like to see our patients achieve their best possible health, preventing the diseases they can and facing with strength and determination those they can't. I'd like to encourage everyone to look at February as a time to take steps toward improved health. In doing so, you can even help support some other February campaigns – eat grapefruit with breakfast or a sweet potato with dinner – even enjoy (in moderation) some cherry pie or some chocolate. Let February, 2011 be either a beginning or a reaffirmation of positive health habits —a gift to yourself and your Valentine.