For many people, the word “cancer” can conjure up feelings of helplessness. The disease often strikes without warning — and seemingly at random. But you have more control over cancer than you might think. Research shows that there are steps you can take to lower your risk for the disease. In fact, nearly one-third of all cancers can be prevented with healthy habits. To make sure you’re on the right path, consider the following tips:
Start with the basics
If you smoke tobacco, quit. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking causes about 87 percent of all lung cancer cases and increases the risk of oral, throat, pancreatic, bladder, kidney and other cancers. It is the most preventable cause of death in the United States.
Keep your alcohol intake under control. This can help lower your risk for cancers of the mouth, liver, larynx and esophagus. Try to limit yourself to one drink a day or less. Experts define “one drink” as a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a shot (1.5 ounces) of liquor. Researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found that postmenopausal women who consume one alcoholic drink a day may increase their risk for breast cancer.
Wear sunblock with an SPF of 15 or higher. Tans and sunburns raise the chance that you’ll get skin cancer. Be extra careful in the middle of the day, when the sun’s rays are strongest. Sunblock is important for people of color and those with a darker skin tone. While dark skin may not burn as easily as fair skin, the risk of skin cancer still applies over a lifetime of exposure.
Some foods contain cancer-preventing nutrients, while others appear to block cancer-causing substances from harming you. Foods that are both healthy and cancer-fighting include pumpkin, sweet potatoes, squash (butternut and acorn), carrots and other orange fruits and vegetables. They contain cancer-fighting nutrients called carotenoids, which have been shown to lower the risk of colon, prostate, breast and lung cancer.
In general, try to limit processed foods, which often have higher levels of salt, sugar, trans fats and preservatives. Diets containing a lot of processed foods tend to be connected to higher rates of cancer. Stick with lower-fat foods, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables. Experts say one key to finding cancer-fighting foods is to look for a lot of natural color. The brighter and richer the pigment, the higher the level of nutrients.
Load up your plate with as many colorful plant-based foods as you can, such as tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes, fruits and spices and seasonings such as turmeric or parsley, soy foods and nuts and beans.
If your plate is a circle, half of the food should be from plants, one-quarter should be a lean protein source like fish, and one-quarter should be a carbohydrate, preferably a whole grain. Whole grains are less processed and refined, so the healthy nutrients in them are left intact; you will get more fiber, minerals, and other vitamins important for keeping your immune system strong. Examples of whole grains are brown rice, barley, bulgur wheat, oats and flax seeds.
Physical activity can help you lose weight and prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for certain types of cancer. Studies also show that regular exercise is associated with a decreased risk for breast cancer. Experts say you should try to get at least 30 minutes of activity five or more times a week.
Walking is one of the easiest exercises to adopt. It can be done virtually anywhere and is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. If walking doesn’t appeal to you some other options include bicycling, dancing, gardening, yoga or even climbing stairs.
Women who are sexually active or over the age of 21 should see their doctor for a Pap test every year. This is the main test for cervical cancer, and it is one of the most reliable cancer screenings available. To further protect against cervical cancer, ask your doctor about the vaccine for human papilloma virus (HPV), which helps prevent two types of HPV that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers.
If you’re age 40 or older, or you have a family history of breast cancer, you should get a mammogram every year. Low-cost mammograms and health education are available through Dana-Farber’s Mammography Van.
To find more tips on preventing cancer and taking control of your cancer risk, visit www.dana-farber.org/community.