7 Healthy Behaviors That Can Reduce the Risk of Cancer

Cut your risk by avoiding certain behaviors and embracing others

An older Asian-American couple exercise during day to help lower their risk of cancer.

Cut your risk by avoiding certain behaviors and embracing others

Advances in early detection, treatment and preventive measures have contributed to a significant decline in cancer-related deaths in recent decades.

Nonetheless, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in men and women in the United States.

Research continues to show 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 Thomas Buchholz, MD, medical director of the Scripps cancer program and a radiation oncologist at Scripps Clinic.

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 modified.

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

Seven modifiable risk behaviors

Many cancers can be linked to behaviors that can be changed, including:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excess body weight
  • Alcohol intake
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Sun exposure
  • Not getting vaccinated for cancer-causing infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV).

Seven things you can do to lower your risk

Follow these tips to lower your risk of developing cancer.

1. Stay away from tobacco

Quit smoking if you do and avoid second-hand smoking to reduce the risk of lung cancer and other cancers.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the United States, accounting for a quarter of cancer deaths. Smoking accounts for 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

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

2. Get to a healthy weight

Maintaining a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular physical activity can significantly lower the risk of cancer.

Living with obesity or being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the endometrium, esophagus, pancreas and kidney.

“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. Buchholz says.

3. Limit how much alcohol you drink

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation or abstain altogether. 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 mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum.

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

4. Protect yourself from the sun

Excessive sun exposure without protection can lead to skin cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer.

Protect your skin by using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and seeking shade when necessary, especially during peak sun hours.


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

Regular 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.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

“If you’re overweight, it’s important to limit sedentary behavior, such as sitting, lying down, watching television or playing video games,” Dr. Buchholz 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. Buchholz says.

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

7. Get HPV vaccine

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.

Cancer screening leads to early detection

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. Buchholz says.

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