Knowing the current science and using your common sense can help you lower your risk of cancer.
There are many ways to help lower your risk of cancer, and they basically break down into a list of dos and don'ts. You probably are aware of at least some, but for maximum effect they need to be applied all together and all the time.
Experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) estimate that about one third of the 1.5 million cancers diagnosed every year in the U.S. could be prevented by following simple guidelines that focus on how much we move, how much we weigh, and what we eat.
For several specific types of cancer, the AICR adds, following those recommendations could prevent even more cases.
First, consider these basics, the trinity of cancer prevention.
Exercise. It doesn’t even have to be formalized. The AICR says be “physically active every day in any way for a half hour or more.” That could easily amount to the things you need to do around the house, or in the garage, the yard, or the basement. Just don’t be a couch potato.
Maintain a healthy weight. That means being as lean as possible without turning yourself into a toothpick. A good rule of thumb is to aim for the lower end of the healthy body mass index range.
Eat right. Choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat, and avoid processed foods, especially processed meat. Research shows that vegetables and fruits probably protect against a range of cancers, including mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, lung, pancreas, and prostate, the AICR says.
You also can add other important dos and don’ts to your list of cancer prevention to further reduce your risk.
- Follow cancer screening guidelines. Early detection methods can find pre-cancerous changes in some parts of the body, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
- Get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that boys and girls get the HPV vaccine series at 11 or 12 to reduce the risk of cancers caused by HPV infection. If you are a female between ages 13 and 26, talk to your doctor about whether the HPV vaccine could reduce your cancer risk.
- Know your family history. “The most common, most deadly diseases facing Americans tend to run in families — heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer,” says the ACS. A family history of cancer is an important risk factor for several forms of the disease.
- Look into and consider possible new approaches to reducing cancer risk. The caveat: some of those could well fall under the don'ts (below), so proceed with some caution and a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s probably most prudent to look into the possible benefits – and caveats – of complementary and alternative medicine. Nearly 40 percent of adults report they use it. Talk to your doctor about any supplements you're taking.
- Don’t use tobacco. Tobacco causes at least 22 percent of cancer deaths, according to the American Institute of Clinical Ongcologists (ASCO). If you don’t use it, don’t start. If you want to stop, medications, counseling, behavioral techniques, and resources can help. ASCO says your chances of successfully quitting are high if you use a plan that includes a support system and systematic steps.
- Avoid tanning or spending extended time in the sun. Excessive exposure to the ultraviolent (UV) end of the sunlight spectrum is a major risk for most types of skin cancer. Avoid tanning beds, and minimize the time you spend in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. Protect yourself with clothing rated for UV protection, and use sunscreen every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy; you’re still getting UV radiation.
- Take measures against exposure to cancer-causing viruses. One major study calculated that chronic infections cause about 16 percent of all cancers worldwide. The hepatitis B virus is a risk factor for liver cancer; the human papillomavirus is a risk factor for cervical cancer, and some types of head and neck cancer, ASCO says.
- Avoid foods that are possible cancer risk factors. Simply following common guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet will take care of that one. Cancer-promoting foods are believed to be those high in refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, preservatives, the by-products of deep-frying, and grilled or burnt meats.
- If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. The risk of various types of cancer — breast, colon, lung, kidney, and liver — increases with the amount of alcohol you drink and the length of time you’ve been drinking regularly.
- Don’t expose yourself to known cancer-causing agents (carcinogens), the ACS says. Those include an array of chemicals.
Finally, print out a list of 10 recommendations for cancer prevention from the AICR that’s perfect for your refrigerator as a daily reminder.
February 19, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA