We could reduce the number of American cancer-related deaths by up to 50%, simply by making lifestyle changes. Evidence suggests that our personal choices and environmental exposures are more likely to cause cancer than genetics (faulty genes cause only 2 to 3% of cancers). Learn how simple changes to your daily routine and diet might help you avoid a cancer diagnosis.
Maintain an Active Lifestyle and Healthy Diet
According to the World Cancer Research Fund, an estimated 20% of cancers, including breast, colon, endometrium, and prostate, are linked to obesity, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and other unhealthy behaviors. While scientists don’t fully understand the link between activity, diet, and cancer, you can improve your general health and reduce your cancer risk by:
- Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
- Eating a diet that is mainly plant-based and avoids processed foods and red meat
- Maintaining a healthy body mass index
You don’t have to start running marathons to reduce your cancer risk. By adding several weekly walks, bike rides, or yoga sessions, you’ll meet the American Cancer Society’s guidelines. You should also avoid prolonged sedentary activities (where you are seated or lying down). At work, take time to move around or opt for a stand-up desk.
Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption
There is a documented link between drinking alcohol and breast, colon and rectum, esophagus, liver, mouth, pancreas, stomach throat, and voice box cancers. While the link between alcohol and cancer isn’t fully understood, it appears that alcohol damages your tissues and might help harmful chemicals enter and remain in your body. Cutting your alcohol consumption limits your risk of further tissue damage, and might also help you lose weight, further reducing your cancer risk.
Eliminate Your Tobacco Exposure
Tobacco’s connection to bladder, cervix, colon and rectum, esophagus, kidney, leukemia, liver, lung, mouth, pancreas, stomach, throat, and voice box cancers is well documented. In fact, about 80% of all lung cancers are tobacco-related. Studies also show that smoking combined with other risk factors, such as alcohol consumption or exposure to carcinogens like asbestos, dramatically increases your cancer risk.
However, when you stop smoking, your likelihood of developing lung and other tobacco-related cancers decreases. Once you’ve quit for five years, your risk of bladder, esophagus, mouth, or throat cancer drops by 50%. After ten years, you’re 50% less likely to die of lung cancer and your risk of voice box and pancreatic cancer decreases.
While smoking cessation is a difficult task, there are an increasing number of support tools available. Under the Affordable Care Act, smoking cessation is an essential health benefit. In other words, you shouldn’t have to pay a co-pay, deductible, or co-insurance payment for most services aimed at stopping smoking.
Take UV Protection Seriously
UV radiation is linked to the majority of skin cancers, including melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell cancers. Simply wearing protective clothing (such as long sleeves, hats, and UV-blocking sunglasses) and sunscreen might reduce your risk of melanoma or other serious skin cancers. You should also avoid indoor tanning beds, which expose you UV radiation.
Certain viruses, including human papilloma virus (HPV) and Hepatitis B are linked to cancer. Doctors recommend that most children receive the HPV vaccine. Also, adults who are at high risk for Hepatitis B — such as IV drug users, people who are sexually active with multiple partners, and healthcare workers — should get immunized.
Follow Workplace Safety Rules
Many of our workplaces contain carcinogenic chemicals, such as:
- Diesel engine exhaust
- Solvents and other chemicals
- Tar and soot
- Wood dust
If you’re concerned about a chemical, review its safety data sheet (a document that describes how and why you should protect yourself from a substance). While you can’t always work in a carcinogen-free workplace, you should always closely follow workplace protocols. For example, make sure you wear protective gear, such as gloves, face masks, or respirators.
ACS guidelines for nutrition and physical activity (2012, January 12). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/guidelines.html
Song, M., Giovannucci, E. (2016, September). Preventable incidence and mortality of carcinoma associated with lifestyle factors among white adults in the United States. JAMA Oncology. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/fullarticle/2522371
U.S. Surgeon General (2010). How tobacco smoke causes disease: the biology and behavioral basis for smoking-attributable disease. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53017/