There is no magic pill for preventing cancer, but if you want to reduce your risk of developing the disease, there is something you can do: change your habits.
That’s right—your habits have a lot to do with your health. Your chances of developing cancer depend partly on genetics, which are out of your control, and partly on lifestyle or environmental factors, which are largely in your control. In fact, researchers have speculated that about one-third of all adult cancer cases are linked to lifestyle.
Want to reduce your risk of developing the disease? Start with these 10 lifestyle changes for optimal health.
1. Avoid Tobacco: The data is in and it’s clear—smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths overall and has been linked to dozens of different types of cancer, including cancers of the esophagus, bladder, kidney, cervix, stomach, larynx, mouth, throat, and more.[i]
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and cigarette smoking is linked to almost all cases. Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer and women who smoke are 13 times more likely compared to their nonsmoking counterparts.
Even if you don’t smoke, it’s important to avoid those who do. Exposure to secondhand smoke has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. About 3,000 cases of lung cancer per year are attributed to secondhand smoke. What’s more, levels of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals have been found to be higher in secondhand smoke than in the smoke inhaled by smokers.[ii]
While you’re at it, avoid all tobacco products—as even chewing tobacco has been associated with mouth, tongue, and throat cancer.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight: Obesity, a condition where a person is significantly or extremely overweight, can increase the risk for several serious medical conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes—and certain types of cancer. Obesity has been linked to a wide variety of cancers, including esophageal, pancreatic, gall bladder, breast, colorectal, endometrial, cervical, kidney cancers, and more. In fact, obesity is not only recognized as a risk factor for cancer development, but also for worse outcomes. Obesity is associated with 14 percent of cancer deaths and 3 percent of new cancer cases every year. Researchers estimate that 90,000 cancer deaths per year could be prevented if Americans maintained a healthy weight. [iii]
3. Exercise: Regular physical activity has been shown to improve overall health and wellbeing as well as reduce the risk of cancer. Studies have consistently shown that moderate physical activity can reduce your risk of cancer by as much as 20 to 50 percent. Exercise has been shown to be particularly beneficial in reducing the risk of breast and colon cancer. Get moving—150 minutes per week of moderate activity is the baseline.
4. Eat Nutritious Food: There are a million fad diets to choose from, but the best choice is real food. The healthiest diet is rich in nutrient-dense food that grows in nature. For optimal health—and a reduced cancer risk—load up your plate with lots of fruits and vegetables and limit consumption of animal products and processed foods.
5. Reduce Alcohol Consumption: If you choose to drink, do so in moderation. The risk of a variety of cancers, including breast, colon, lung, stomach, and liver cancer, increases with increased alcohol consumption. In fact, even low levels of alcohol consumption have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.[iv] An estimated 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths are attributed to alcohol. Even moderate alcohol consumption can increase the risk of many different types of cancer.[v] According to the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, alcohol consumption should be limited to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
6. Manage Stress: While stress itself hasn’t been clearly linked to cancer in any studies, it has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and weaken the immune system, potentially creating fertile ground for the development of cancer. What’s more, stress can lead people to engage in unhealthy behaviors that have been linked to cancer, such as smoking, excessive drinking, or overeating.
There are a variety of stress management techniques, such as meditation, journaling, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and more. Find what works for you and keep stress at bay for optimal health.
7. Get Plenty of Sleep: Sleep is an integral component of our health. It enables the body to rest and recharge and is also needed for important physiological processes such as hormone regulation, which affects immune function and overall health. The average person needs six to eight hours of sleep per day, but most of us don’t get as much as we need. Sleep deprivation can have a drastic impact on our health. In fact, some research has shown that people who consistently get less than six hours of sleep a night over several years are at a higher risk of developing some types of cancer. The reasons are unclear, but it could have something to do with levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. Regardless of the reason, the solution is simple—get some sleep.
8. Protect Yourself from the Sun: Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer—but also one of the most preventable. Protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun by using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and hats, and avoiding the midday sun. Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. Seek shade whenever possible.
9. Get Screened: There are a variety of screening tests for cancer that can help detect it in its earliest stages when it is most easily treated. For example, mammograms have been shown to detect breast cancer early before any symptoms appear and the PSA test detects prostate cancer early as well. Some screening tests, such as colonoscopy or PAP smears, can actually help prevent early pre-cancerous changes from developing into cancer.
Screening guidelines vary based on age and family history. Consult with your physician to determine the most appropriate screening schedule for your health.
10. Avoid Unnecessary X-rays: Radiation from X-rays and other imaging techniques (such as CT scans and MRI) has been shown to increase the risk of several cancers. Sometimes X-rays and scans are necessary and the benefits outweigh the risks. However, excessive use of scans is not recommended. Use common sense and caution when considering elective scans, such as yearly dental X-rays.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General—Smoking Among Adults in the United States: Cancer. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2004.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General—6 Major Conclusions of the Surgeon General Report. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2006.
- Calle EE, Rodriguez C, Walker-Thurmond K, Thun MJ. Overweight, obesity, and mortality from cancer in a prospectively studied cohort of U.S. adult. New England Journal of Medicine. 2003;348:1625-38
- Chen WY, Rosner B, Hankinson SE, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Moderate alcohol consumption during adult life, drinking patterns, and breast cancer risk. JAMA. 2011;306;1884-1890.
- Schütze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al. Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Apr 7;342:d1584. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d1584.