Ways To Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Lifestyle choices can affect the odds of getting cancer

Illustration by Brittany Inglese

Some cases of cancer can be traced back to a likely trigger, such as an inherited genetic fluke. In other instances, cancer appears to be random — the luck of the draw. “Most cancers are sporadic; we don’t know why they happen,” says Brian Knab, MD, medical director and radiation oncologist at the Elliot Regional Cancer Center. But even though much about cancer remains uncontrollable and unknown, choices we make each day can significantly decrease our odds of being diagnosed with the dreaded disease.

We cannot wholly prevent cancer through the way we live our lives. Even individuals who exercise daily, maintain an ideal body weight and rarely put red meat on their plate can develop cancer. However, while we cannot completely eliminate our risk of developing a malignancy, “doing the right things helps,” Knab says.

First, do not overlook the power of early detection. “In the United States, there are more than 500,000 cancer deaths each year,” Knab says. “Early cancer detection and treatment is one of the most effective means of reducing the risk of developing and dying from cancer.” Screening programs such as mammography and colonoscopy are capable of detecting cancers at an early stage or even before a cancer develops, Knab says, and have helped to dramatically reduce cancer deaths in the United States.

And although the majority of cancers occur without a clearly identifiable cause, Knab says, risk factors that are associated with the development of cancer do include modifiable lifestyle decisions. “Some studies suggest that approximately one-third of all cancers can be attributed to environmental and lifestyle risk factors such as tobacco use, obesity, diet, inactivity and air pollution,” he says.

Lifestyle factors have been linked to variety of cancers, including the most common cancers diagnosed in the United States: breast, colorectal, prostate and lung cancer, Knab says. Modifying tobacco use, weight, diet and physical activity, along with limiting alcohol consumption, “can significantly reduce the risk of developing and dying from these common cancers,” Knab says.

Among the ways individuals can influence their cancer risk, tobacco use tops the list. Smoking accounts for one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States, Knab says, and “smoking cessation is by far the most effective means of reducing cancer risk.”

Weight also plays a significant role in the development of cancer. “Excess weight has been associated with up to 20 percent of all cancers,” Knab says. “Increased body fat causes insulin resistance and can increase the production of some growth factors, which can promote cancer growth. Body fat also increases hormone production … that can fuel the development of hormone-related cancers such as breast and prostate cancer,” he says.

And while the food you choose to eat influences your weight, when it comes to cancer, diet is also significant by itself. You’ve heard it before, but consuming vegetables, fruits and whole grains while minimizing sweets and red and processed meat is the way to go. A healthful diet can help lower our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke, according to the American Cancer Society. “A diet high in fat has been associated with the development of prostate cancer,” Knab says. “Diets high in red meat have also been linked with an increased risk of developing colorectal cancers and increased risk of dying from cancer.”

Similar to a good diet, exercise brings a litany of benefits, including a lower risk of cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, which is not a tremendous amount, yet Knab says more than 50 percent of the US adult population does not get enough exercise. Why exercise brings an anti-cancer benefit is not entirely clear, but theories include a relation with decreased body mass index (BMI) and improved immune function, Knab says.

If you have made poor lifestyle choices well into adulthood, take heart: it is never too late to decrease your cancer risk and benefit from a healthier lifestyle. For example, even lifelong smokers can see “significant health benefits” upon quitting, Knab says, including an almost immediate, measurable reduction in cancer risk. In addition, substantial weight loss, such as that seen after bariatric surgery, has been reported to significantly reduce cancer mortality, Knab says, with the benefit seen within the first 10 years after the weight is lost. 

Skip the deli line and proceed to better health

Standing in line at the deli is no one’s idea of fun, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to grab sliced meat for easy, packable lunches. Well, now you have the motivation to come up with new lunch menus for you and your loved ones: In October 2015, a large study by the World Health Organization (WHO) linked the consumption of processed, smoked and red meats with an increased risk of cancer.

WHO’s warning about the dangers of red meat should come as no surprise since red meat’s negative effects on health have long been widely publicized, but other aspects of the WHO’s announcement might seem confusing or frustrating to those who have believed over the years that foods such as low-sodium deli turkey, for example, are a wise choice. Regardless, study results clearly indicate that luncheon meats — including turkey and chicken — along with other processed food such as bacon and hot dogs — are best avoided, says Diane Gilbert-Diamond, ScD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Giesel School of Medicine and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Meat that is considered processed includes added preservatives or has been cured with salt or smoke, or heated at a very high temperature to extend the product’s shelf life, Gilbert-Diamond says.

Giving up cold cuts might add to the challenge of filling our lunch bags, but look at the bright side: fewer visits to your supermarket’s deli means less time wasted in line at the counter.

For more information, visit the American Cancer Society’s website at cancer.org.

Categories: Features