That’s part of what makes cancer so scary. Moreover, there are plenty of people who seem to do everything ‘right’ and are still diagnosed with cancer. But if you follow the 10 recommendations described in these pages, you will go a long way toward reducing your overall cancer risk. And don’t forget to get the recommended screening rests, some of which (like colonoscopy) can actually prevent cancer.
Kick the butt and flip the tobacco
Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, of course, but also cancers of the esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix. Other tobacco products (smokeless/chewing tobacco, cigars, and pipes) also increase cancer risk. Smoking is the leading cause of premature, preventable death in much of the world. And secondhand smoke is also responsible for a sizeable number of lung cancer deaths.
If you smoke or use other tobacco products, quitting is by far the most important step you can take to prevent cancer and protect your overall health. It is never too late to quit.
Obese people are at a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer, as well as esophageal adenocarcinoma, gallbladder and liver cancer, leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In addition, obese postmenopausal women are at increased risk for breast and uterine cancer.
Precisely why body fat increases cancer risk isn’t fully understood. There is evidence that fat cells increase blood levels of a number of hormones that can fuel the growth of certain types of cancers, at least in lab studies. Obesity is also linked to chronic inflammation in the body, which can contribute to cancer development.
Physical activity plays an important role in cancer prevention – and not just because it can help you control your weight. Exercise may also reduce cancer risk by lowering hormones and cellular growth factors, improving insulin resistance and, when done in moderation, enhancing the immune system.
Exercise has also been found to improve the prognosis and/or well-being of people already diagnosed with cancer.
The best evidence of potential benefit concerns colon cancer. The effect on breast cancer risk has also been studied extensively, with mostly positive results. For prostate, lung and endometrial cancers, research has been promising, though less consistent.
Of course, people who exercise tend to do other healthy thing, which makes it hard to tease apart whether it’s the exercise, healthy lifestyle or the combination of the two that decreases cancer risk. It’s also not clear what kind of exercise is most beneficial – and whether you need to start young and exercise your whole life to reduce cancer risk or if becoming active later is beneficial, too.
Eat right (read healthy!)
There’s much debate about the specifics of what constitutes an “anti-cancer” diet, but the basics are pretty simple. Make vegetables and fruits the center pieces of your plate at every meal. Limit your intake of red meat and pork, especially processed meats. Choose whole grains over refined-grain products. Avoid salty and salt-preserved foods. In simple terms, you should be eating a high-fibre diet that is as close to vegetarian as possible.
There are many types of fruits and vegetables, as well as different types of cancer, so specific connections may be hard to spot in studies that lump everything together. It’s also possible that your genes may determine if, and how much, certain fruits and vegetables protect your body against various cancers, or that what you ate when you were young, rather than what you eat now, plays a larger role in preventing or promoting cancer.
Cut the peg shorter
Unbridled alcohol consumption may increase the risk of various cancers, and the more you drink, the greater the risk. The evidence is strongest for cancers of the esophagus, mouth, throat and larynx. You are at even greater risk if you drink and smoke. Research also suggests that alcohol increases the risk of liver, colorectal and breast cancer.
In particular, if you know you are at high risk for breast cancer, or if you’ve had breast cancer, you should consider not drinking or drink only occasionally.
If you do drink, drink in moderation. For women, that means no more than one drink a day; for men it’s one or two drinks. And if you’re over 65, you should drink even less than that.
Medical imaging tests are harmful too!
Experts have become increasingly concerned about the overuse of many types of medical imaging, especially from CT scans largely because of the cumulative exposure to radiation. The risk from a single CT scan, when appropriately done, is minuscule, but radiation exposures add up over a lifetime.
Make sure that imaging tests are done only when there is a clear benefit that outweighs the risks – and that the minimal level of radiation will be used. Before undergoing a diagnostic scan, ask if the test is really necessary and whether it really improves your health care. Also ask if there is a non radiation alternative, such as ultrasound or MRI, that’s equally good. Before having any imaging scan, discuss the pros and cons with your doctor.
Check your water for arsenic
Arsenic is a tasteless, odorless chemical element found naturally in rocks, soil, water and air. When arsenic is combined with oxygen, iron, chlorine and sulfur it creates an inorganic compound that can be found in certain building materials and contaminated water. Exposure to high levels of this type of inorganic arsenic has been linked to cancers of the bladder, colon, kidney, liver, lung and skin.
If your water comes from a public drinking water system, you probably don’t need to worry about arsenic.
Limit high-heat cooking
Cooking high-protein foods such as meat, fish and poultry at high temperatures over coals or flames creates chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydro-carbons (PAHs), which are believed to promote cancer risk.
The same is true of pan-frying such foods on the stove, or any high-heat cooking method. Studies have shown that very high levels of HCAs and PAHs can cause many different types of cancer in rodents. In addition, observational studies have found that people who eat lots of fried or barbecued meat and other charred foods are at increased risk for colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.
If you do cook at high temperatures, precooking the meat in the microwave for a few minutes before putting it on the grill and turning it frequently while it’s cooking to prevent charring will help reduce the levels of HCAs and PAHs.
Workplace exposure to carcinogens can be dangerous
Occupational exposures to carcinogens are responsible for a sizeable number of cancer cases. Bartenders and waiters, for instance, are often exposed to secondhand smoke. Workers in chemical plants, gasoline-related industries and the printing business may be exposed to benzene, a chemical that has been linked to leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Workers in hair and nail salons may be exposed to formaldehyde.
If you think your job may expose you to known or potential carcinogens, you should check the government regulations for your workplace to be sure your employer is following them.
Limit your exposure to air pollution – Outdoors and indoors
Outdoor air pollutants is a leading cause of cancer. Air-quality index reports daily will help you keep track of the air quality in your city.
If the air is bad, you’re better off going to the gym or spending time indoors than heading out for a walk or run. You can also reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollutants by limiting your time outside during peak traffic and by choosing walking routes that go along side streets rather than busy roads. Carpooling is yet another option!
But keep in mind, the air you breathe at home is often more heavily polluted than the air outside. Tobacco smoke is by far the worst pollutant. Plywood, particle board and other manufactured wood products can release formaldehyde.
Besides limiting your exposure to these sources, open windows and doors as often as possible. Use venting systems in bathrooms, kitchens and any room with a fireplace, woodstove or range. Don’t use incense, air fresheners or scented candles. Use insecticides sparingly.