Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

How Can You Reduce Your Cancer Risk Now?

By Marci A. Landsmann

Between 30 and 50 percent of cancer diagnoses in the United States could be prevented using the tools and knowledge we already have, says oncologist and epidemiologist Ernest Hawk, vice president for Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Lifestyle recommendations, such as not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, make a difference in reducing cancer risk. “The amazing thing is that, as banal as it sounds, these things are actually really important,” says Hawk, who notes that getting exercise and eating well benefits everyone, including cancer survivors. Preventive health recommendations, such as vaccinating adolescents with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine and following cancer screening recommendations, can also have an impact.

Here are eight suggested steps for reducing your cancer risk:
Don't start smoking or quit now. Smoking rates have come down among U.S. adults—from 42 percent in 1965 to 15 percent in 2015—but cigarette smoking is still linked to 480,000 deaths a year, and smokers die on average 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. “The data show that if you really want to have the biggest impact on reducing cancer rates, you should eliminate tobacco,” says Judy Garber, an oncologist at the Center for Cancer Genetics and Prevention at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Maintain a healthy weight. Excess body weight may be linked to as many as one in five cancer deaths and is associated with at least 13 cancer types, including breast, colorectal, uterine, esophageal, gallbladder and pancreatic cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR)—a nonprofit organization that publishes research-based diet, lifestyle and exercise recommendations to reduce cancer risk—states that maintaining a healthy weight is the most important way to protect against cancer, aside from not smoking.

Eat a commonsense healthy diet. Studies haven’t conclusively shown a link between vegetable and fruit intake and reduced risk of cancer development, but a plant-based diet that centers on low-calorie and fiber-dense nutrient sources can help contribute to keeping weight in healthy ranges. On the other hand, eating processed meats—such as hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausages and some lunch meats—can increase the risk of colorectal cancer, and red meat consumption can increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer and possibly prostate and pancreatic cancer, according to the AICR.

Exercise regularly. Using data pooled from 1.4 million people, a study published in the June 2016 JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that those who took part in physical activity that was comparable to the American Cancer Society’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly had a reduced risk of 13 cancers, including colon, breast, endometrial, liver and kidney cancer, as well as esophageal adenocarcinoma, myeloid leukemia and cancer of the gastric cardia. 

Limit alcohol. Heavy drinking has been associated with breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, and head and neck cancers. Recent research shows that even small amounts of alcohol (measured at one drink a day) may also increase risk for colorectal cancer and breast cancer.

Protect yourself from ultraviolet light. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. Melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer estimated to have killed more than 10,000 Americans in 2016, is on the rise, especially among people under 40. Perhaps contributing to this jump among younger Americans: About one in three white women between ages 18 and 25 have used indoor tanning beds.
Follow age-appropriate screening recommendations. In some cases, screening doesn’t just detect potential tumors earlier—it can prevent cancer altogether. For example, physicians can detect and remove precancerous polyps during colonoscopies. Still, a 2013 study of data from the National Health Interview Survey suggested just 61 percent of Americans between 50 and 75 had adhered to colorectal cancer screening guidelines.
Get vaccinated. Each year in the U.S., more than 30,000 women and men are diagnosed with a cancer related to human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection. More than 12,800 American women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2017 and 4,200 will likely die from the disease. HPV also is linked to throat, vaginal, vulvar, anal and penile cancer. Adolescents can protect themselves from many of these HPV-related cancers by getting vaccinated before they become sexually active.


Receive monthly updates, including information about web exclusives, events, resources, articles and highlights from new issues—direct to your email inbox. Be among the first to hear the latest news from Cancer Today! Click here to sign up!