Everyday Ways to Lower Your Cancer Risk

Exciting research is uncovering simple ways you can guard against cancer (one tip: stop stressing).

No one wants to get cancer. Turns out, you have considerable power over that scary fate. True, it's possible to do everything "right" and still end up developing the disease. But a surprising amount of cancer is preventable—in fact, a stunning one-half to two-thirds of our risk is in our control, many experts now believe. For example, about a third of all cancer deaths in the U.S. each year are linked to diet and physical inactivity.

Cervical cancer, which is linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), can be avoided with vaccination. "A proper diet, exercise, stress management and social support could go a long way toward addressing the vast majority of health problems"—including cancer, says Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine program at the Mayo Clinic. It just comes down to adopting—and sticking to—some simple habits.

Eat right
Load up on antioxidant-packed superfoods, like blueberries and kale, to keep cancer away, right? Yes, fruits and veggies are a crucial part of a healthy diet (and antioxidants do seem to thwart tumors, at least in lab studies). But in recent years a more sophisticated understanding of how food affects our cancer risk has emerged. "Individual foods aren't the answer—it's the overall dietary pattern that likely makes the most difference," says Colleen Doyle, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Translation: We should be focusing not just on what we eat, but on how much. Obesity is a key culprit in a number of diseases, from diabetes to heart conditions, and it might contribute to cancer as well, in different ways. After menopause, for instance, extra pounds can keep estrogen levels high, which can push breast cells to divide more aggressively, in some cases leading to tumors.

Two small changes that help you stay in shape and may lower your cancer risk: First, eat more fruits and vegetables—any kind, but especially brightly colored ones, which are high in antioxidants. Consuming at least five servings a day can significantly lower your chances of getting cancer, Doyle says. Second, have less red meat and more plant-based proteins such as beans and tofu. Cooking red meat at high temperatures releases compounds that, when digested, have been linked to some cancers. "The good news," Doyle notes, "is you don't have to change absolutely every single thing to see a real difference in your risk."

Squeeze in exercise
Doctors are increasingly aware that being physically active goes hand in hand with eating well when it comes to preventing cancer. Investing in a healthy diet but not getting enough exercise could negate the benefits of all that responsible eating; working out fanatically but overdoing it on high-calorie favorites won't do your body much good, either.

Some studies have linked higher levels of physical activity with lower levels of breast cancer, although the reason for the association isn't exactly clear. (Exercise might adjust your hormonal balance to make it less hospitable for tumors to grow, or trigger metabolic changes that make cancer less likely.) How much is enough? Though there's no specific anticancer formula for exercise (yet), the ACS recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity—walking briskly, gardening, playing tennis, whatever you like.

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Alice Park
Last Updated: April 01, 2013

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