Six steps to help you reduce your risk of cancer. Learn what you should eat, what tests you need and more.
You've probably heard conflicting reports in the news about what can or can't help you prevent cancer. It gets confusing — sometimes what's recommended in one report is advised against in another. What you can be sure of is that making small changes to your everyday life might help reduce your chances of getting cancer. Try these six steps.
Step 1: Don't use tobacco
All types of tobacco put you on a collision course with cancer. Rejecting tobacco, or deciding to stop using it, is one of the most important health decisions you can make. Avoiding tobacco in any form significantly reduces your risk of several cancers, including:
- Voice box (larynx)
- Acute myeloid leukemia
In the United States, cigarette smoking is responsible for about 90 percent of all cases of lung cancer — the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. Every time you smoke a cigarette, you inhale more than 60 substances that can cause your cells to become cancerous (carcinogens). In addition, the tar in cigarette smoke forms a sticky brown layer on the lining of your lungs and air passages. This layer traps the carcinogens you've inhaled.
Smoking cigars and pipes or chewing spit tobacco isn't safe either. Compared with nonsmokers, cigar smokers have higher rates of lung cancer, as well as cancers of the larynx, esophagus and mouth. Chewing tobacco also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, cheeks and gums.
Even if you don't smoke, reduce your exposure to secondhand smoke. Each year, about 3,000 nonsmokers die of lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke.
Step 2: Eat a variety of healthy foods
Though making healthy selections at the grocery store and at mealtime can't guarantee you won't get cancer, it can help reduce your risk. Research suggests that about 30 percent of cancers are related to issues of nutrition, including obesity.
The American Cancer Society recommends that you:
- Eat an abundance of foods from plant-based sources. Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Also eat other foods from plant sources, such as whole grains and beans, several times a day. Green and dark yellow vegetables, beans, soybean products and cruciferous vegetables — such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage — may help reduce your risk of colon and stomach cancers.
- Limit fat. Eat lighter and leaner by choosing fewer high-fat foods, particularly those from animal sources. High-fat diets may increase your risk of cancer of the prostate, colon, rectum and uterus.
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Your risk of cancers, including oral, esophageal and other cancers, increases with the amount of alcohol you drink and the length of time you've been drinking regularly. Even a moderate amount of drinking — two drinks a day if you're a man or one drink a day if you're a woman — may increase your risk.
Step 3: Stay active and maintain a healthy weight
Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly also may play a role in preventing cancer. Obesity may be a risk factor for cancer of the prostate, colon, rectum, uterus, ovaries and breast. Physical activity can help you avoid obesity by controlling your weight. Physical activity on its own may also lower your risk of other types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer.
Try to be physically active for 30 minutes or more on most days of the week. Your exercise sessions can include such low-key activities as brisk walking, raking the yard or even ballroom dancing. Safe exercise programs exist for just about everyone. Your doctor or physical therapist can help design one for you.
Step 4: Protect yourself from the sun
Skin cancer is one of the most common kinds of cancer — and one of the most preventable. Although repeated exposure to X-rays or contact with certain chemicals can play a role, sun exposure is by far the most common cause of skin cancer.
Most skin cancer occurs on exposed parts of your body, such as your face, hands, forearms and ears. Nearly all skin cancer is treatable if you detect it early, but it's better to prevent it in the first place. Try these tips:
- Avoid peak radiation hours. The sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation peaks between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Minimize or avoid being outside during these hours.
- Stay in the shade. If you go outside, minimize your sun exposure by staying in the shade.
- Cover exposed areas. Wear light-colored, loosefitting clothing that protects you from the sun's rays. Use tightly woven fabrics that cover your arms and legs, and wear a broad-brimmed hat that covers your head and ears.
- Don't skimp on sunscreen. Make sure your sunscreen has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
- Don't use indoor tanning beds or sunlamps. These can damage your skin as much as the sun can. There's no such thing as a healthy tan.
Step 5: Get screened
Regular screening and self-examination for certain cancers increase your chances of discovering cancer early — when treatment is more likely to be successful. Screening should include your skin, mouth, colon and rectum. If you're a man, it should also include your prostate and testes. If you're a woman, add cervix and breast cancer screening to your list. Be aware of changes in your body — this may help you detect cancer early, increasing your chances of successful treatment. If you notice any changes, see your doctor.
Step 6: Consider other possible cancer-fighting strategies
Research on other strategies to fight cancer — including the use of certain natural synthetic substances (agents) — is ongoing. You may want to talk to your doctor about some of theses strategies. Some of the agents under investigation include:
Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs). Tamoxifen (Nolvadex) can decrease the risk of breast cancer in some high-risk women by about 50 percent. Scientists are also investigating raloxifene (Evista), another SERM, to see if it, too, can prevent breast cancer in some high-risk women.
Aromatase inhibitors. These drugs, including letrozole (Femara), anastrozole (Arimidex) and exemestane (Aromasin), reduce the amount of estrogen available to fuel hormone-receptive tumors in women. Researchers are investigating whether aromatase inhibitors can prevent breast cancer.
Finasteride. Finasteride (Proscar) may reduce the risk of prostate cancer in some men by 25 percent.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Studies show these drugs, which include aspirin and ibuprofen, may play a role in preventing cancers of the colon, breast and esophagus.
Calcium. Calcium compounds also may reduce your risk of colon cancer. Taken in excessive amounts, however, calcium may increase your risk of prostate cancer.
Retinoids. These chemicals, similar to vitamin A, might protect against cancers of the breast, head and neck, though study data haven't been clear.
Other cancer prevention strategies include increasing your awareness of risk factors in your home — such as radon gas — or where you work — such as radiation or certain industrial chemicals. Take steps to reduce your exposure to these substances.
In addition to helping reduce your risk of cancer, most of these strategies can also help you avoid other serious diseases, including heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Unfortunately, nothing guarantees a cancer-free life, but by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, you can increase your chances.