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7 Behaviors That Can Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Cut your risk by avoiding certain behaviors and embracing others

Healthy older woman after workout.

Cut your risk by avoiding certain behaviors and embracing others

The number of people dying from cancer has declined by 27 percent since 1991, a significant development that is due largely to better cancer treatments, early detection and preventive measures, according to a new study by the American Cancer Society.

Yet cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States — and the numbers continue to be alarming.

This year, 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed, (187,000 in California), and more than 600,000 people will die from the disease, (60,000 in California), according to the American Cancer Society.

The numbers should not be so high.

Research shows we can do plenty to lower our risk of developing cancer. “It starts with knowing the risk factors, especially those that we can modify or change,” says Laura Goetz, MD, a general surgeon and cancer expert at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines.

While some risk factors for cancer, such as family history, age and race or ethnicity, cannot be changed, many behaviors that put you at risk can be changed.

“A significant proportion of cancers could be prevented with lifestyle changes that improve your immune system function,” Dr. Goetz says. “Our immune system is the first line of defense against cancer.”

Top 7 modifiable risk behaviors

According to another study, about 42 percent of cancer cases and 45 percent of cancer deaths were attributable to risk factors linked to lifestyle.

In fact, a large portion of major cancers — including cancers of the breast, lung, liver and colon and rectum — were attributable to these modifiable risk factors, according to the 2017 study in the CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

The top risk factors were cigarette smoking, excess body weight, alcohol intake, poor diet, physical inactivity, sun exposure and not getting vaccinated for cancer-causing infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV).

7 things you can do to lower your risk

Follow these tips to lower your risk of developing cancer.

1. Stay away from tobacco

If you smoke, stop. Avoid secondhand smoke as well. Smoking accounts for 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the US, accounting for a quarter of cancer deaths.

“It's never too late to quit smoking,” Dr. Goetz says. “No matter how long you have smoked, quitting can reduce your risk.”

2. Get to a healthy weight

Lose excess weight and keep it off. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas and kidney, according to the American Cancer Society.

“If you're trying to get your weight under control, a good first step is to watch portion sizes, especially of foods that are high in calories, fat and added sugars,” Dr. Goetz says.

3. Limit how much alcohol you drink

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. It can make a difference in your long-term health.

Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis, which increases the risk of liver cancer. Heavy or regular alcohol use also increases the risk of developing cancers of the oral cavity (mouth), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, breast, colon and rectum.

People who drink alcohol should limit it to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A serving of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).

“Remember, the more you drink, the higher your risk,” Dr. Goetz says. “The risk is greater when you drink alcohol and also use tobacco.”

4. Protect yourself from UV rays

Protect your skin. Many skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV radiation) from the sun.

“Go out but protect yourself from the sun as much as possible and avoid indoor tanning beds,” Dr. Goetz says.

If you're going to be in the sun, remember the catchphrase: “Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap.

  • Slip on a shirt.
  • Slop on sunscreen.
  • Slap on a hat with a wide brim.
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect your eyes and skin around them.

5. Move more, sit less

Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps cut your cancer risk by helping to keep your weight in check. It can help improve your hormone levels and the way your immune system works. Studies show it can help lower the risk of colorectal and endometrial cancers.

According to federal guidelines, adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity to get substantial health benefits.

“If you're overweight, it’s important to limit sedentary behavior, such as sitting, lying down, watching television or playing video games,” Dr. Goetz says. “If you need help, talk to your doctor about how to lose excess weight safely and keep it off.”

6. Eat less meat and more fruits and vegetables

Diets that are high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains and low in red and processed meats have been linked with lower colorectal cancer risk.

“Dark leafy greens and deep-colored vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of antioxidants that can help reduce cancer risk,” Dr. Goetz says.

Instead of red meats that are high in fat, such as beef and pork, choose poultry and fish, she says. “If you eat red meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions,” she says.

7. Get vaccinated

Protect yourself and your family against HPV.

HPV is a common infection that goes away on its own in most cases. When it doesn't go away, it can cause health problems, including cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis and anus.

Most cancer-causing HPV infections can be prevented with vaccination. All boys and girls should get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. It is available for people as young as 9 and up to the age of 45.

Screening to catch cancer early

Even with the best preventive habits, it's important to get regular checkups and not wait for problems to occur. Screening can mean the difference between life and death when it comes to cancer.

Screening gives your doctor the opportunity to catch some cancers early when treatment is more likely to be successful,” Dr. Goetz says.