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8 Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Cancer

Here are the habits that matter most if you want to slash your risk
Written by 
Amanda MacMillan
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Have you ever wondered what, exactly, determines your risk of getting cancer? A 2012 European survey found that 15 percent of people believed that a person’s risk of developing cancer in their lifetime couldn’t be changed (thankfully, that’s not true). Others thought that wearing tight underwear or being hit in the breast would increase someone’s cancer risk—also not true—but at the same time, some didn’t know about proven risk factors, like eating red meat. When you can sort fact from fiction and understand which habits and lifestyle choices really do affect your cancer risk you’re taking the first steps toward truly protecting yourself.

Even if you’ve heard that lifestyle, environment and overall health can affect your chances of developing cancer, you might wonder how much these choices really matter. Quite a lot, it turns out: According to a study at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, 90 to 95 percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to lifestyle factors and are considered preventable. That means that just five to 10 percent are linked to genetics.

“Many people believe they don’t need to worry about cancer if they don’t have a family history of it,” says Stephen Brewer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “But because only five to 10 percent of cancers are genetically derived, you must look at lifestyle as the main culprit in the formation of cancer.”

The University of Texas study found that lifestyle factors like cigarette smoking, eating a diet high in fried foods and red meat, drinking alcohol, sun exposure, excess weight and physical inactivity all play a significant role in whether or not a person develops cancer over a lifetime. The encouraging news, of course, is that because all of these factors are largely in your control, you have the power to keep your cancer risk as low as possible by making smart choices about your health. Here are the eight most essential cancer-fighting habits

Don’t Smoke (and Quit If You Do)

At least 14 types of cancer are linked to tobacco use. This is no surprise since tobacco contains at least 50 different carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances. Smoking accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent of deaths from lung cancer. No matter when you quit, doing so can help you live longer and will almost immediately lower your risk for lung, laryngeal, esophageal, oral, pancreatic, bladder and cervical cancer.  Secondhand smoke is a risk factor for cancer, too, so it’s wise to steer clear of people while they’re lighting up.

More: Considering Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Overweight and obesity are responsible for up to 20 percent of cancer-related deaths. Carrying too much weight contributes to dangerous health conditions such as diabetes and inflammation and it can cause the body to put out excess hormones—all of which have been linked to cancer. If every American adult lost around two pounds, 100,000 new cancer cases could be avoided by 2030, according to one study. Your weight may have something to do with factors you can’t control, like genetics or a health condition, but eating whole (not processed) foods, watching portion sizes and getting plenty of physical activity are your main weapons against excess weight. If you’re struggling with extra pounds, your doctor can help you find a plan to lose them in a healthy way. Visit our article, Strategies for Weight Loss That Sticks, to learn the eight techniques that are most important for maintenance.

Eat More Plants and Less Meat

At least three times every day you have a chance to lower your cancer risk: at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Diet has been linked to about one-third of all cancer deaths in the U.S., and as many as 70 percent of colorectal cancer cases (red meat is strongly linked to this form of cancer). Whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, which are loaded with vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients, may help to protect against several forms of cancer, so try to build your meals and snacks around these foods, not meat. Limit how much red meat, processed meats and fried food you eat; all may drive up cancer risk. “The World Cancer Research Fund has found a correlation between excess red meat and several cancers, including colon, lung, esophageal and stomach cancers,” Dr. Brewer says.

Move More Throughout the Day

Sedentary people may be at higher risk for cancers of the breast, colon, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), prostate and pancreas. There are many ways that exercise appears to protect against cancer: It makes it easier to stick to a healthy weight; it regulates hormone levels; and it increases immunity, to name a few. The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests that everyone get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like walking or yoga), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like jogging or swimming) every week. Even if that’s more than you can manage now, simply increasing your activity levels at all can help. Also aim to move more during the day (outside of workouts or trips to the gym); that means less sitting and lying down and more standing and moving around whenever you see an opportunity.

Keep Drinking to a Minimum

Despite what you may have heard in the media, drinking alcohol isn’t necessarily good for you—especially when it comes to cancer. While some studies suggest that moderate drinking may protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes, alcohol increases the risk of certain cancers. In a recent report, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that alcohol is definitively linked to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon-rectum, liver and female breast; drinking is also being studied as a risk factor for pancreatic, cervical and other cancers. Compared to nondrinkers, those who imbibe have a 10- to 12-percent higher risk of breast cancer for every cocktail they drink each day. How does booze do its damage? When we metabolize alcohol, our bodies produce a compound called acetaldehyde that damages our DNA. Alcohol may bump up the risk of breast cancer by increasing levels of estrogen or other hormones, as well. And alcohol combined with smoking is an especially toxic combination. Although it appears that even light drinking may increase cancer risk, more is worse. If you do drink, do so in moderation: one drink a day for women and two drinks for men. If you’re at high risk for breast cancer, consider abstaining. Don’t drink? Don’t start.

Protect Yourself From the Sun

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, but it’s also the most preventable—as many as 90 percent of cases can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun’s rays. And even if you worshiped the sun as a teenager, it’s not too late to make a difference; on average, only about one-quarter of a person’s lifetime exposure to the sun occurs by the age of 18. Protect yourself year-round by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays) with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher; wearing protective clothing like broad-rimmed hats; avoiding direct sunlight midday (the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and choosing self-tanning lotions over tanning beds.

Keep Your Environment Safe

Exposure to environmental pollutants such as air pollution, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals may influence your risk. Of course, you can’t control every environmental factor that comes your way; perhaps the simplest method for reducing your toxic load is by practicing what we call clean eating—choosing organic foods when you can, thoroughly washing produce, limiting processed foods and seeking out safe seafood, for example. You’ll also want to incorporate foods like cruciferous vegetables and green tea into your diet; these and other detoxifying foods help change unwanted compounds in the body into a form that can be easily excreted.

More: Detox Your Diet

Work on Managing Your Stress

There’s no clear evidence that stress causes cancer, but it could make you vulnerable by lowering your immune response or by making you more likely to partake in behaviors that up your cancer risk, like smoking, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise or drinking too much. Stress has also been shown to encourage tumors to grow and spread to other parts of the body. Identifying the stressors in your life can help you come up with a plan of action to deal with your problems so you can feel better. You can also consider a variety of ways to relieve your stress, like exercising, spending time with friends, focusing on your passions or learning how to be more present in the moment

Reference(s) 
Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry
American Academy of Dermatology
Cleveland Clinic
European Society for Medical Oncology
Journal of the American Medical Association (February 1998)
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
National Cancer Institute
Pharmaceutical Research (September 2008)
Skin Cancer Foundation
World Health Organization
About the author 
Amanda MacMillan is a health writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Runner's World, Health and Whole Living magazines.