According to the American Cancer Society, approximately one in three Americans will develop invasive cancer in their lifetimes, while almost one in four Americans will die of cancer, making it the second leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease. Although your susceptibility to developing certain cancers does have a genetic component, the overwhelming majority of cancers are attributed to environmental and lifestyle factors.
So how do we cut down our preventable cancer risks? You probably already know that you need to wear sunscreen, eat more veggies and avoid tobacco, but few of us are aware of the precise recommendations for environment/lifestyle-based cancer prevention, such as how many vegetable servings we should eat every day. Read on to learn what the latest scientific research and health authorities say about cancer prevention – including how to reduce some cancer risk factors you might not even be aware of.
These first four tips are ones you’ve probably heard about before but might not know the particulars of.
1. Eat a plant-based diet
Diets high in fruit and vegetables have been associated with decreased risk of developing cancer and other diseases. Although the exact mechanisms by which fruits and vegetables help prevent cancer are not known with certainty, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and tea are rich sources of antioxidants and other micronutrients that are thought to play a role in cancer prevention. And unlike animal-based and processed foods, plant foods are naturally low in saturated fat, calories, salt and sugar, all of which – when habitually consumed in excess – have been linked to cancer. So how much fruits and veggies do you need to eat? The American Cancer Society recommends getting at least five servings of fruits and veggies per day – that’s 2.5 cups.
2. Get more physical activity
There is strong evidence linking regular physical activity with a reduction in one’s risk of developing colon, breast and other cancers, most likely due to its effects of combating obesity, balancing your hormonal levels and boosting your immune system. Unfortunately, according to the National Cancer Institute, 50 percent of Americans don’t get enough exercise to provide these benefits. And how much is enough? The CDC currently recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (e.g., brisk walking) on five or more days a week, or at least 20 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (e.g., jogging) on three or more days per week. It may sound like a lot, but these exercise hacks can help you start, and stick to, a successful workout program.
3. Don’t smoke
Containing more than 50 known carcinogens, cigarette smoking is the primary cause of cancer deaths in the United States, killing one in five Americans. While most people know that smoking (and second-hand smoke) causes cancer, people who have been smoking for many years often feel like it’s “too late” to quit because the “damage is already done.” However, this is far from the truth. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who quit smoking by the age of 50 reduce their risk of dying prematurely by 50 percent compared to those who continue to smoke, and even people who quit at age 60 live longer than people who continue to smoke. That said, it’s still best to quit smoking as soon as possible – studies show that smokers who quit at age 30 reduce their risk of dying prematurely from cancer and other smoking-related diseases by over 90 percent.
Unless you keep up on all the latest cancer-related medical literature, these next four tips may surprise you.
4. Limit sun exposure … but don’t avoid it entirely!
Because it has been linked to melanoma – a potentially deadly form of skin cancer – health officials recommend that you protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation exposure, avoiding the use of tanning beds entirely and limiting your sun exposure by staying indoors or protecting your skin using clothes, hats and/or broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 during the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. However, a growing body of evidence indicates the importance of vitamin D – a nutrient we derive primarily from UV light exposure – in the prevention of cancer and other serious diseases. Fortunately, according to the National Institutes of Health, most people can synthesize enough vitamin D with about 10 to 60 minutes of direct sunlight exposure per week. Alternatively, you can take vitamin D supplements to meet your intake needs.
5. Don’t be overweight – at all
While the negative health consequences of obesity are more apparent, many people are unaware that being even slightly overweight may increase your risk of developing certain cancers, and that of particularly hormone-dependent cancers, such as prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. “Belly fat,” or fat that accumulates around the abdomen, is especially correlated with health problems, as it produces hormonal effects associated with certain cancers and other diseases, such as diabetes. To gauge whether your weight presents a cancer risk, you can calculate your body mass index (BMI) and measure your waist circumference. Use this handy resource from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to calculate your BMI.
6. Consider not drinking if you’re a woman
With all the talk about the antioxidants in red wine and the potential heart-health benefits of alcohol, popular opinion in our alcohol-loving society says that alcohol is OK, and even beneficial for health, when consumed in moderation. However, while this may be true for men over the age of 40, for whom the heart-health benefits of having one or two drinks per day outweigh the risks, such is, unfortunately, not the case for middle-aged and younger women. A study that followed over 1.2 million middle-aged women for an average of seven years found that women who drank as little as one alcoholic beverage per day, whether it was wine, beer or hard liquor, had an increased risk of developing several different kinds of cancer. If you do choose to drink, it’s important to drink moderately, because the more you drink, the higher chance you have of developing cancer, whether you’re male or female.
7. Practice safe sex
Another lesser known fact about cancer is that it is commonly caused by bacterial and viral infections. Worldwide, approximately 18 percent of cancer deaths are related to infection, while in the U.S., about 10 percent of cancer cases are infection-related. Of the infections that can lead to cancer, the majority are sexually-transmitted. Some of these include chlamydia, human papilloma viruses (HPVs), hepatitis, HIV and herpes. While not everyone infected with these conditions develops cancer, each of them increases your likelihood of developing certain cancer types. Therefore, it is important to practice safe sex, every time.
These next three items are a little more “out there” – meaning they are supported by some cutting-edge scientific research, but health authorities haven’t yet reached a consensus as far as recommendations that are safe and effective for everybody.
8. Drink coffee
In addition to a reduced risk of developing neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, coffee consumption has been linked to decreased risk of developing liver, oral, esophageal and other cancers. Being a plant-based food (see item #1), coffee has a rich antioxidant profile, containing anti-cancer compounds such as methylpyridinium and chlorogenic acid. There is also some evidence that caffeine itself is a beneficial antioxidant. Nevertheless, there are no official recommendations regarding coffee and cancer prevention, and people with anxiety or heart problems and pregnant women should limit coffee intake, per their physician’s instructions.
9. Take a daily aspirin – if your doctor gives the go-ahead
Published in the medical journal “Lancet” in 2012, meta-research collecting data from more than 50 research studies found that individuals who took daily aspirin for at least three years had a reduced risk of developing cancer, and those who did develop cancer were 36 percent less likely to develop advanced cancer. The anti-cancer effects of aspirin were especially strong in regards to colon cancer. Still, experts aren’t yet sure how aspirin may prevent cancer or which dose works best. Low daily doses of aspirin are generally considered safe and are already recommended for people who are at risk for stroke or heart attack. However, since aspirin can also increase risk of gastrointestinal bleeding in some people, you should talk to your doctor before taking daily aspirin to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
10. Don’t drink soda
In addition to soda’s association with cancer-promoting weight problems (even diet soda has been linked to weight gain), there are some other good reasons not to drink it: it may contain benzene, a known carcinogen; Bisphenol A (BPA), a suspected carcinogen; and 4-methylimidazole, another suspected human carcinogen and known animal carcinogen. Some, but not all, soft drinks contain benzoic acid, which is used as a preservative. When combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), another common soft drink ingredient, benzene is formed. Epoxy-coated soda cans and plastic bottles which contain acidic drinks like soda have also been found to leach BPA, a chemical that has been associated with increased incidence of breast and prostate cancer. Finally, after recently getting flak from The Center for Science in the Public Interest over 4-methylimidazole, an animal carcinogen commonly used to make the caramel coloring in certain sodas, Coke and Pepsi are phasing this ingredient out of their soft drinks.