The number of new cancer cases is increasing dramatically – especially among younger patients. Many of these diseases can be prevented through lifestyle adjustments. Cancer doctor Hana Algül explains how you can significantly reduce your risk of cancer.

According to the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), around half a million people in Germany develop cancer every year – the second most common cause of death behind cardiovascular diseases. The number of cases is even increasing. “For many tumor diseases, we are seeing a disproportionate increase in new diagnoses, especially among young patients – i.e. under 50 years of age,” explains Hana Algül, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center Munich at the Rechts der Isar Clinic at the Technical University of Munich, to FOCUS online.

“This is a development that is giving us a headache.” This worrying trend is particularly noticeable in colon cancer. “Here we see the greatest increase in patients between the ages of 20 and 30,” explains the cancer doctor.

Why this is so cannot be answered so easily. “We don’t have a clear explanation for this,” explains Algül. “Several factors always play a role that increase the risk of cancer.” These included environmental factors such as pollutants in the air as well as lifestyle factors – i.e. how you eat, whether you smoke or drink, whether you are overweight and how much you exercise .

Genetic predisposition also plays a role. “When we analyze tumors, we can now very quickly determine whether they have a genetic origin,” says Algül. “In colon cancer or pancreatic cancer, for example, we know that up to ten percent of tumors can be traced back to genetic factors.”

This is even more pronounced in breast cancer, especially when women have mutations in the so-called BRCA gene. “Women who experience this have an 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer.” The tricky thing is that this mutation in the BRCA gene does not necessarily result in breast cancer, but a tumor can also grow elsewhere, such as on the ovaries. According to the “Doccheck” portal, the risk of ovarian cancer would be 60 percent.

What do people in Germany get sick with? In a major focus area, FOCUS provides online information about the four major widespread diseases

We shed light on the medical background surrounding causes, symptoms, risk factors and treatment options. At the same time, we show you what you can do for each illness to minimize the risk.

In case histories, one affected person also reports on their life with cancer, heart disease, dementia or depression – moving, sometimes sad, but always encouraging.

But pancreatic cancer or colon cancer can also arise from this mutated gene. “We don’t know exactly why this is the case – we only know that the tendency to tumors is increased by this mutation,” explains Algül. Therefore, this group of patients who have this gene mutation would need to be carefully monitored.

To have the breasts removed as a precaution, as US actress Angelina Jolie did, for example, must be considered very carefully with the patient. “You have to take into account that the tumor can also arise elsewhere – the patients simply have to be well informed,” warns Algül. “The treatment of breast cancer in particular has improved greatly, so that patients survive for decades after becoming ill,” he explains.

Early detection is still important when it comes to cancer. The simpler formula is that the earlier it is detected, the better the treatment options and prognosis for the patient. That’s why preventive examinations are so important and can help to significantly reduce mortality from cancer.

“A prime example of this is the colonoscopy, which we carry out as part of colon cancer screening,” says Algül. “It has two advantages: not only does it enable the early diagnosis of carcinoma, it also makes it possible to remove the precursor of a tumor during the colonoscopy,” he explains. These are so-called polyps, benign protrusions of the mucous membrane that can develop into cancerous tumors within ten to 15 years.

The downside: Far too few people have a colonoscopy, even though health insurance companies cover it for men aged 50 and over and for women aged 55 and over. The participation rate would only be 20 to 30 percent. “There is still a lot of shame around the topic – if more people had colonoscopies, we could probably prevent 60 to 70 percent of tumors.”

Algül also hopes for new early detection methods such as new molecular stool tests and the detection of circulating tumor cells in the blood, which can also be used to identify precursors of colon cancer in patients. “Especially because younger patients are increasingly being affected by colon cancer, it will be helpful in the future to be able to identify it earlier using such test procedures.”

For Algül, one thing in particular has become apparent in cancer research: “Over the last 20 years, we have worked a lot on the treatment of tumor diseases and have made great progress with immunotherapy, for example, but we have also clearly recognized that the best therapy is prevention is,” he explains. “You have the best chance of recovery if the tumor has not yet formed.”

Therefore, the task of cancer medicine in the next decade must be to improve preventive measures and to identify patients more specifically who could develop a tumor – be it colon cancer, breast cancer or pancreatic cancer.

Even if no one has 100 percent control over preventing cancer, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. According to the DKFZ, around half of all cancer cases are due to an unhealthy lifestyle. Therefore, Älgül advises not only to take cancer prevention seriously, but also to maintain a healthy lifestyle. That means:

Algül himself swears by sport when it comes to cancer prevention. “No matter how strenuous my day in the hospital was, when I get home in the evening and have put my children to bed, I do 45 minutes of exercise.” Because one thing is now known for sure: exercise promotes blood circulation throughout the entire body and strengthens them the immune system in the fight against cancer.