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These small tweaks are good for your overall health, too.

By Korin Miller
March 01, 2021
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An estimated one in three women and one in two men in the US will develop cancer in their lifetimes, making the odds high that the disease will impact you or someone you love at some point. While certain factors that can lead to cancer like genetics are out of your control, there are some things you can do to lower your risk. And doctors say they're more important than most people realize.

"The majority of cancers can be prevented through lifestyle changes," Therese Bevers, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Health.

Martin J. Edelman, MD, chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, tells Health that lifestyle factors, like what you eat, how often you exercise, and how much you drink alcohol, are "very important" to your ultimate cancer risk. "Data clearly implicate obesity, smoking, alcohol use among other factors in cancer diagnosis," he says. "These are all modifiable with a change in lifestyle."

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) more than four in 10 cancer cases are linked to lifestyle factors you can change.

"There are a lot of things people can do, and it largely comes down to leading a well-balanced, healthy life with exercise," Nainesh Parikh, MD, an interventional radiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center, tells Health.

We're not talking major, earth-shattering things here: These are mostly small tweaks just about everyone can do to lower their risk, and most of them are good for your overall health, too. If you want to lower your cancer risk—and why wouldn't you?—cancer experts say these moves can have a big impact on your overall health.

Don't smoke. Just don't.

Smoking causes about 20% of all cancers and 30% of all cancer deaths in the US, the ACS says. About 80% of lung cancers, the leading cause of cancer death in men and women, are caused by smoking, but smoking also increases the risk of other cancers like cancers of the mouth and throat, kidney, liver, bladder, stomach, colon, and pancreas.

"Cigarettes are known carcinogens—inhaling toxins in cigarettes can directly lead to cancer," Edelman says. "Smoking is the single most important cause of preventable cancer."

If you already smoke, Dr. Bevers recommends talking to your doctor about ways you can quit. You can also check out the American Lung Association's online resources for help.

Keep your home stocked with sunscreen—and actually use it.

Skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the US, with about 4.3 million adults treated for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas each year, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in just 15 minutes, raising your risk of skin cancer.

That's why the CDC recommends slathering on a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher before you go outside—even on cloudy or cool days—and reapplying every two hours. You should also put it on again after swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Most sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering sunlight, protecting your skin from UV rays in the process.

Cut back on drinking.

This one is (understandably) a little confusing. There has been plenty of discussion, and even research, that found that people who drink red wine have a lower risk of cancer. The main factor seems to be the antioxidant and plant compound, resveratrol, which is found in grapes that are used to make the wine.

Research has found that resveratrol may protect your cells from damage that could lead to some forms of cancer, but there's not a definitive link. Scientists are also still trying to figure out whether the resveratrol in red wine actually reduces your cancer risk, Dr. Bevers says.

There's also this to consider, per Dr. Bevers: Alcohol use has been linked to cancer. In its Report on Carcinogens, the Department of Health and Human Services lists alcohol as a known human carcinogen (aka, something that causes cancer). Evidence suggests that the more alcohol a person drinks, including the more they drink regularly, the higher the risk of developing certain forms of cancer, including head and neck, breast, liver, and colorectal cancers.

"If you really want to eliminate your cancer risk from alcohol, you would avoid alcohol," Dr. Bevers says. "But, recognizing that many people will want to have some alcohol, we recommend an average of one drink or less per day for women, and two drinks or less a day for men."

Limit your bacon intake

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, concluded in 2014 that eating large amounts of red and processed meat may slightly increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. The IARC specifically classifies red meat as "probably carcinogenic to humans" and processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans," noting that there is "sufficient evidence" that processed meats cause cancer in people.

One of the biggest issues is that processed meats contain nitrates, which have been identified as a carcinogen, Dr. Bevers says. That doesn't mean you'll get cancer if you have a slice of bacon here and there. But, in general, "you want to try to avoid foods that have carcinogens in them," Dr. Bevers says.

Get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes a day.

Being physically active can reduce your cancer risk by helping you maintain a healthy weight, the ACS says, noting that being overweight or obese increases the risk of several cancers, including breast, colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, pancreas, liver, and kidney.

There are a few different factors for this, but the ACS says that one of the main issues is that extra weight causes your body to make and circulate more estrogen and insulin, which can stimulate cancer growth.

The ACS recommends doing 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combo of both). FWIW: Moderate activities include going on a fast walk or biking—basically, just getting your heart rate up.

Put a rainbow on your plate

There's no one diet that's considered anti-cancer, but eating a good mix of nutrients can lower your odds of developing cancer, Dr. Parikh says. The ACS specifically recommends eating these to lower your risk:

  • Foods high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients
  • Low calorie foods that help you get to and stay at a healthy body weight
  • A colorful variety of vegetables, specifically dark green, red, and orange veggies
  • Fiber-rich beans and peas
  • A colorful variety of fruits
  • Whole grains and brown rice

The ACS also recommends limiting red and processed meats, sugary drinks, and highly processed foods.

Get the HPV vaccine

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infects about 14 million Americans each year, according to the CDC. Most HPV infections go away on their own, but the ones that don't can lead to cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and back of the throat.

HPV causes nearly 36,000 cases of cancer in men and women each year in the U.S., per CDC data—and the HPV vaccine can prevent more than 32,00 of those cancers. "The HPV vaccine can potentially be life-altering for a lot of people," Dr. Parikh says.

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