Tips to Live By

8 Ways to Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Feb. 8, 2024 - Katie McCallum

We've all had our lives impacted by cancer in some form or fashion, making it one of our most prominent health concerns.

The most common cancer types include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 2 million cancers were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2023. These numbers are overwhelming, but there are ways you and your loved ones can fight back.

"When it comes to cancer, knowledge, awareness and early action can be our strongest allies," says Dr. Scott Olsson, a cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer at Houston Methodist.

How to prevent cancer: 8 ways to reduce your risk

Between 30%-50% of cancers are preventable by eliminating or addressing risk factors and following a healthy routine. Dr. Olsson emphasizes that it's never too late to be proactive about your health.

Reduce your cancer risk by adopting and maintaining these lifestyle habits:

1. Know your body

One of the most important steps you can take is to be familiar with your body's normal patterns.

"Pay attention to any changes or unusual symptoms that continue for an extended period," says Dr. Olsson. "Lumps, persistent coughs, changes in bowel or bladder habits, unexplained weight loss and abnormal bleeding should never be ignored."

(Related: When to Worry About Breast Lumps)

Trust your instincts, and if something feels off, seek medical advice promptly.

2. Don't smoke or vape

"Smoking cigarettes is the No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer," says Dr. Olsson. "Tobacco smoke exposes the body to thousands of chemicals, dozens of which are known to cause cancer."

Smoking also affects your overall health — damaging the lungs, heart and more. And don't assume vaping is safe.

"We don't fully understand the long-term effects of e-cigarette use, but many people, especially teens and young adults, don't realize that e-cigarettes still contain many harmful chemicals," adds Dr. Olsson.

Just like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes almost always contain nicotine. And even when they don't, vape pens are still packed with toxic substances — including volatile organic compounds that have the potential to cause cancer (one of which is also found in car exhaust); diacetyl, a flavoring linked to serious lung disease; and ultra-fine particles that can reach deep into the lung and cause irritation.

3. Limit alcohol consumption

It's important to recognize the long-term health consequences of moderate to heavy alcohol use, which include an increased risk for several types of cancer, such as head and neck cancers, esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer and more.

"Acetaldehyde, one of the breakdown products of alcohol, is toxic to the body," explains Dr. Olsson. "Cancer risk depends on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption, and limiting alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk."

The American Cancer Society recommends men limit their intake to no more than two servings of alcohol per day, and women to no more than one.

Keep in mind, a serving of an alcohol is defined as:

  • 12 ounces of mild beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

4. Exercise

"Being physically active is linked to a lower risk of several cancers, including bladder cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer and stomach cancer," says Dr. Olsson. "Conversely, being sedentary is associated with an increased risk of many chronic health conditions, including certain cancers."

Whether activity comes from walking, jogging, biking, playing a sport or something else, adults should aim to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

"Any activity is better than no activity," adds Dr. Olsson. "Even finding simple ways to add movement into your routine — choosing the stairs over the elevator, parking farther away, taking up an active hobby like gardening — can have a big impact on your health."

5. Wear sunscreen

Sun exposure is one of the primary risk factors for developing skin cancer. Fortunately, wearing sunscreen can help protect your skin and reduce the risk.

"Sunlight is harsh, containing two types of UV rays (UVA and UVB) proven to damage DNA and contribute to the development of skin cancer," explains Dr. Olsson. "It's important to protect your skin — no matter how long you are in the sun."

Here are some quick sunscreen tips:

  • Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30
  • Replace expired sunscreen
  • Opt for a "sport" or "sweat-resistant" option if you think you'll sweat or be in the water
  • Apply plenty of it to any skin surface that may be exposed while you're outside
  • Make sure you reapply according to the label's instructions

(Related: Are You Using Sunscreen Correctly?)

6. Eat healthy

Poor nutrition and being overweight are linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, among other chronic health conditions.

Examples of unhealthy foods common in the Standard American diet include:

  • Red meats, such as beef and pork
  • Processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs and deli meats
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soft drinks
  • Ultra-processed foods, like chips, cookies and many frozen TV dinners

Aim to limit these foods. You can do this by replacing chips and fries with fruits and vegetables, choosing chicken over steak and taking a closer look at nutrition labels to help avoid added sugars, refined grains and saturated fats.

7. Visit your primary care doctor

When it comes to getting your cancer prevention questions answered, your primary care provider is a good place to start.

"Regular checkups and open communication allow your doctor to monitor your health, address any concerns and recommend appropriate cancer screenings based on your risk factors," says Dr. Olsson.

(Related: 5 Reasons You Need a Primary Care Doctor in Your 20s & 30s)

Take an active role in your health care by asking questions, sharing any changes or concerns and discussing your family's medical history with your PCP.

8. Follow cancer screening guidelines

Some screening can detect abnormal growths before they become cancer, like polyps and moles. But most screenings focus on detecting cancer in its earliest stages, increasing the chances of successful treatment and improving overall outcomes.

"Being attuned to your body's signals is vital to catching cancer at its earliest stages when it is most treatable," says Dr. Olsson. "Establishing a close relationship with a primary care doctor who understands your medical history and can guide you through questions about your health is invaluable."

So are cancer screenings, such as cervical cancer screening, mammograms, colorectal cancer screening, lung cancer screening and prostate cancer screening. When and which screenings you need varies depending on your age, gender, family history and other risk factors. Your primary care doctor can help establish what your individualized plan should look like.

"If something is detected during a screening, your primary care doctor can recommend you to the appropriate specialist," adds Dr. Olsson. "We act as a team for your health."

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Categories: Tips to Live By