The Big 6-Oh . . . And Taking Care of Your Health

I just celebrated my birthday. It was a big one. I’d like to think of it as the second anniversary of my 30th birthday. Yes, all you math whizzes, I turned 60.

I decided to mark the occasion with a big party that was really designed to celebrate the wonderful people who have been part of my life; from my childhood in Arlington, Virginia to UVA friends, to so many people I’ve had the pleasure of working with through the years from my days at CNN to some of my current Yahoo colleagues. And though it was a trip down memory lane, I am trying not to spend too much time looking in my rear view mirror. Instead, I want to focus on the future….and although the road ahead may not be quite as long as the one behind me, I want to do everything I can to enjoy the ride. (Oy, I will lighten up on the driving metaphors!) And that means taking care of myself and my health. Eating right, sleeping well (yes, Arianna, I’m listening!), and disconnecting from my device so life doesn’t pass me by as I’m staring into my phone. It also means doing everything I can to get the checkups and screenings I need before a little problem turns into a big one. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. (Oh my, I AM starting to sound like my mother!)

It’s easy for us to put these things off. So many of us are trying to balance a hectic lifestyle with demands at home. But women of America, you can’t take care of everyone else if you don’t take care of yourself. So, go through the following checklist, especially when it comes to getting cancer screenings. It might just save your life and get you to that next, big birthday.

Last year, almost 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer. Nearly 600,000 died from it (or, more accurately, from the many diseases we lump together under that one dreaded word). These sobering statistics should make us all think about what we can do to reduce our risk.

Research shows that cancer screenings could decrease the risk of death in many cancer cases. Catching cancer early can improve your odds of beating it, and treatments may be less toxic too — with fewer side effects. Depending on your health plan, screenings and vaccinations may be available to you at no additional cost.

But many Americans aren’t getting the recommended screening tests for colorectal, breast and cervical cancers. In 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that screening rates for these cancers are still below where they need to be.

It can be hard to keep up with screenings. That’s why an organization I founded with eight other ‘Type A’ women, Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), is teaming up with Rally Health to help people keep track of the latest information on cancer screenings and encourage them to get their butts (and other body parts) to the doctor! Go to GetScreenedNow.org. to get a personalized to-do list for someone your age. (Yes, be honest!) When you answer a few simple questions, you’ll get an email with recommendations for screenings and preventive care, along with a list of simple actions you can take to lower your cancer risks. Here are some of the suggestions women might receive:

Breast Cancer Screening — Women ages 50–74 who are at average risk of breast cancer should get a mammogram every two years. That’s the recommendation of national experts. Frankly, there’s some controversy about it in scientific circles. Some feel routine mammograms lead to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment. Best thing to do: talk to your doctor about your own situation and see if the guidelines can or should be tailored to you. Also, it’s good to be aware whether your family health history puts you at higher risk. If so, your doctor may recommend counseling, and earlier or more frequent tests.

Cervical Cancer Screening — Starting at age 21, all women should have a Pap test every three years. Cervical cancer is one of the easiest to catch and treat early, so don’t put off that Pap!

Colorectal Cancer Screening — I’m sure many of you remember my colon’s ’15 minutes of fame’ when the TODAY show broadcast my live colonoscopy back in 2000. If you’re between 50 and 75, you should be getting screened to catch colon polyps and cancers as early as possible. The good news is you have options for how to be screened. This is a type of screening that is tried and true — there’s no debate that colon cancer screening saves lives!

Hepatitis B and C Screening — Left unchecked, these liver infections can lead to serious damage, even liver cancer. If you test positive, your doctor can start you on treatment. If you’re at higher risk, talk to your doctor about getting screened for Hep B and C infections.

HPV Vaccine — Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical, anal, penile, and head and neck cancers. Fortunately, there are vaccines to reduce the risk. Yet, nearly half of teenagers in this country have not had a single HPV shot. Parents, make sure your preteens or teens have had their HPV shots (boys included!). Women and men in their 20s should also talk to their doctors about the HPV vaccine.

Skin Cancer Screening — While melanoma and other skin cancers usually show up later in life, they’re getting more common in younger adults and children. Melanoma is often caused by excess sun exposure or indoor tanning. Check yourself for warning signs: Look for moles that are dark or uneven in color, large or fast-growing, have irregular shapes or edges, or just look very different from other spots on your skin. If you find anything suspicious, get it checked by a doctor. I had a baseline mole check with my dermatologist years ago, and I see her annually for a visual full-body scan. It’s important to know that melanoma is not just a skin cancer; it can form, rarely, in internal organs. President Carter drove that fact home when he openly discussed how his melanoma first appeared on his liver, and that doctors suspected it had started somewhere else.

Not only should every woman go through her checklist, she should consider the new year as a time to usher in some positive changes. It’s not an exaggeration to say many of them can be life-saving:

Don’t Smoke — Do not smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products, which are not safe either. Many e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive, so it is best to avoid them. The good news: you might be really cranky after you quit, but just five years after you stop, your cancer risks start to decrease.

Avoid Too Much Sun — Stay safe out there, and say no to tanning beds. Check out the helpful information about the UV index, sunscreen, eye protection and how to spot dangerous moles on your skin when you go to GetScreenedNow.org to get your personalized screening recommendations.

Be a Smart Eater — You can have a cupcake or two sometimes…okay three on your birthday, but that’s it! Eat lots of plant foods; whole grains, veggies, fruit, nuts, and beans. And watch out for salt!

Fit in Regular Exercise — It’s good for your weight, mood, blood sugar, and yes, it can lower your risk of 13 types of cancers. Intensity seems to count, so work it!

Keep Your Weight In Check — It doesn’t take much. If everyone lost just one percent of their body mass index, 100,000 cases of cancer could be prevented. If you’re already slim, try to stay that way.

Mind Your Drinking — Alcohol is said to account for about 3.5 percent of all deaths from cancer in the United States — almost 20,000 per year. The risk increases the more you drink, so experts suggest moderation if you drink: Hold it down to no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two for men (because of their larger body mass).

As I enter new decade, I plan to follow my own advice. I might not always succeed. After all, nobody’s perfect. But when it comes to well-being and preventing cancer, you don’t want to be left saying, “if only.” So, let’s do this thing. Go through your own checklist. Let’s take charge of our health to try and make sure we’re around to keep celebrating! (OMG did I just write that?)

And raise a glass (of H20) to our collective good health!