Back when Dr. Henry Lynch earned his medical degree, it was believed that heredity played no role in the development of cancer. But he proved this was wrong, and now, more than 56 years later, he is hailed as the “father of cancer genetics.”
Lynch is as devoted at the age of 89 to the early diagnosis and prevention of cancer as he was when completed his medical training in 1961.
He’s also committed to spreading the word about the Lynch syndrome, the genetic disorder that is named for him.
“According to current estimates, about one million people in the U.S. have Lynch syndrome, and fewer than 5 percent are aware of it,” Lynch tells Newsmax Health.
Heredity is now attributed as the cause of an estimated five-to-10 percent of cancers, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says.
Back then, though, this wasn’t thought to be the case, says Lynch, a full-time medical professor at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb.
As a young doctor, Lynch had observed a pattern of inherited colorectal cancer in certain families.
Convinced that there was a genetic cause, he diligently worked to document his findings, and then arranged a meeting to present them to National Cancer Institute experts
“Unfortunately, we completely struck out and, when I saw them looking at their watches halfway through my presentation, I knew I was doomed,” says Lynch.
Eventually, he proved them wrong, and the genetic condition Lynch had discovered is now known as Lynch syndrome.
Although Lynch syndrome is most closely identified with colon cancer, people who inherit it also are faced with increased risk of the disease in the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder ducts, upper urinary tract, brain, and skin.
Women with this disorder face a higher risk of cancer of the ovaries and the endometrium (uterine lining).
Thanks to Lynch, countless lives have been saved through earlier screening tests and stepped up surveillance.
Today, he spends one day a week seeing patients at the Creighton University Hereditary Cancer Center, which he founded 34 years ago.
Here are Lynch’s cancer prevention tips:
- Do your family medical history. If you spot a pattern of cancer, talk to your doctor about whether you need to see a genetic counselor.
- Even if you don’t have a genetic predisposition for cancer, be certain to get the cancer screenings recommended for your age and gender. These can help detect sporadic cancers, which arise for no known reason and are the majority of the cases of the disease.
- Have regular colonoscopies to detect colon cancer. If you have an inherited gene mutation that raises your risk, such as Lynch syndrome, you need to begin screening at a relatively early age (20-25 years old) and have it done yearly until age 40 and then annually thereafter. If you are at average risk, have your first colonoscopy between 40 and 50 years old, and repeat it every five years. This recommendation for those at average risk is more stringent than current American Cancer Society guidelines, which call for those at average risk to begin screening at the age of 50 and repeating it every 10 years, but Lynch believes it to be warranted.
- Avoid excessive radiation. Don’t undergo tests that involve radiation, such as x-rays and CAT scans, unless they are necessary.
- Limit sun exposure and don't use tanning booths.
- Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Tobacco use is linked not only to lung cancer, but to a number of other cancers as well, including kidney and bladder cancer. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. There is evidence that excessive alcohol use is linked to gastrointestinal, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer.
- Stay at or close to your ideal weight. Excessive weight is a dangerous contributor not only to certain types of cancer – such as breast – but to diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well.
- Eat a reasonably healthy diet. Lynch doesn’t believe that there is a particular food that will prevent – or cause – cancer, and he doesn’t recommend any particular supplements, saying there is not enough scientific evidence yet. But this is a field that bears watching, he says.
- Enjoy daily moderate exercise. If you have cardiovascular disease risk factors, get a checkup first.
- Find a mission. Helping people is a secret to staying young.
Here are Lynch’s secrets to staying healthy and active:
- He does as much exercise as possible every day, including squats, and rigorous arm movements. “I also walk as much as possible, even though I use a walker," he says.
- He tries to stick to a low-calorie diet and avoids sweets.
- He's never used tobacco. “I tried a cigarette when I was 10. I was told it would be fun, but it made me sick and I never smoked again.”
- Although he's not judgmental about those who drink alcohol in moderation, Lynch chooses not to.
- He also is an avid reader and believes that reading, not only science, but also fiction, history, and books in other fields, is an excellent way to keep the mind active.
- Above all, Lynch has no plans to stop working. “I’ll never retire I’m having too much fun trying to help people," he says.
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