Prevention Tips to Lower Your Cancer Risk
While heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined, cancer is still scary. Cancers that commonly affect women are breast, lung, endometrial, colorectal, skin, cervical and ovarian, with the most common being breast cancer and the deadliest being lung cancer.
Like heart disease, some cancers are preventable. These lifestyle tips can help lower your risk:
If you smoke, stop. Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, the leading cancer killer among women. It’s linked to 80 to 90 percent of all lung cancer cases. Even second-hand smoke is deadly: It can increase your risk for lung cancer by 30 percent. But it’s not just lung cancer: Smoking is a factor in blood, bladder, cervix, colon, esophageal, kidney, liver and stomach cancers, among others. It’s also linked to breast cancer in pre-menopausal women.
Maintain healthy weight
Unlike smoking, there’s less of a direct link between being overweight or obese and cancer. Most of the evidence tying obesity and cancer together comes from large observational studies, which can be difficult to interpret and does not establish a direct cause and effect relationship. That said, higher amounts of body fat are associated with higher risks in a number of cancers, including endometrial, liver, kidney, multiple myeloma, pancreatic and colorectal cancers, among others.
Get regular exercise and physical activity
In addition to helping your heart, regular exercise can lower your cancer risk. For example, studies show that physically active women had a 12 to 21 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who were least physically active. Women who exercise more after menopause may also have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who are less active. It also lowers your risk for colon cancer, kidney cancer and endometrial cancer. In fact, women who were highly physically active had a 20 percent lower chance of endometrial cancer.
Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins
While the link between diet and cancer is unclear, there’s plenty of evidence that eating the right diet can lower your risk – while eating a poor diet raises it. And it’s not about eating one particular nutrient. Noshing on blueberries alone won’t lower your risk. But some eating habits definitely raise your risk. Eating 2 ounces of processed meat a day raises your risk of colorectal cancer by 20 percent, where eating a diet rich in complex carbs like legumes (beans, peas and lentils) lowered your risk of the same cancer by 32 percent.
Some studies now suggest that eating a Mediterranean-style diet may have a protective effect against cancer, but it’s not necessarily more effective at lowering risk than other healthy diets. The devil is in the details; if you eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dried beans, peas, nuts and fish, you’ll do better from a risk standpoint than if you add red and processed meats into that diet.
Restrict alcohol consumption
Drinking alcohol is linked to a number of cancers and the relationship is linear: The more you drink the higher your risk. The National Cancer Institute estimates that about 3.5 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S. are alcohol-related. Alcohol consumption is related to breast cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer and esophageal cancer. Studies have shown that moderate drinkers have a 1.23 times greater risk for breast cancer; for heavy drinkers, the risk is 1.6 times greater.
Protect your skin
A number of things you can’t control can raise your risk for skin cancer, including:
- A lighter natural skin color
- Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
- Blue or green eyes
- Blond or red hair
- Certain types and a large number of moles
- A family history of skin cancer
- A personal history of skin cancer
- Older age
But that just means you need to be hypervigilant about sunscreen use and avoiding UV rays. Make sun protection a habit – wear sunscreen, cover up and avoid getting sunburned. And stay away from tanning beds.
Know your family history with cancer
Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about your family tree. But knowing your family history can help you and your doctor better measure your risk and know what to keep an eye out for. Start by gathering whatever health information you can about your parents, grandparents, siblings, children and extended family (aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces). Then ask: Who had cancer and what kind? When did they get it? Are they still alive? If not, what age were they when they died and was cancer the cause?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these family history traits put you at higher risk:
- Any first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) diagnosed before age 50 with ovarian, uterine, breast, or colorectal cancer.
- Two or more other relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews) on either your mother’s or father’s side diagnosed with ovarian, uterine, breast or colorectal cancer.
- A male relative diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Family history that includes Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
You can’t prevent every type of cancer but knowing your family history — and letting your doctor know it —can give you a better idea of your risk. And adopting a healthier lifestyle can help you lower it.