When we talk about cancer prevention, we're essentially focusing on behaviors and factors we can control. Joyce Chen, MD, a family medicine physician at Rush South Loop, an outpatient center, and Kristin Gustashaw, a clinical dietitian at Rush University Medical Center's Nutrition and Wellness Center, explain the dangers and how we can make better choices to protect our health.
You may not realize it, but aging is a risk factor for cancer. The longer your cells are turning over, the more likely miscopying can happen. Though we can't control aging, we can control the speed at which we age. "We know, in theory, we can kind of age ourselves faster or slower, depending on how much insult we give our bodies," Gustashaw says.
Chen explains: "Lifestyle is key. So when you are concerned about cancer from external forces, it's important to realize that you can actually do something about a lot of them."
Here are some key lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your cancer risk.
Cancer prevention action plan
1. Stop smoking — or better yet, don't start.
Choosing not to use tobacco is one of the most effective forms of cancer prevention.
And it's not just lung cancer that's preventable either. By not smoking you can also prevent the following types of cancer:
- Bladder cancer
- Mouth cancer
- Oral cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Tongue cancer
- Throat cancer
Traditional cigarettes pose the biggest threat. But e-cigarettes, or vaping, also pose a risk of cancer. With cigarette smoking, the nicotine and tar can cause cancer. With e-cigarettes, you're still getting the nicotine in your lungs but without the smoke and tar of regular cigarettes.
Since e-cigarettes are still relatively new to the market, the long-term health effects remain unknown, but they’re still potentially problematic.
"The vapor you're breathing in has chemicals and particles, especially the flavored ones, that can damage or scar your lungs," Chen says.
"It’s one of those lifestyle factors that I tell my patients, 'We'll do all we can as a provider to help you quit or at least cut down, but if you haven't started, don't start.' Because once you start, it's hard to stop; it's an addiction."
Ready to quit smoking or thinking about it? Or have you quit in the last five years? Register for the free Rush Pro-Change smoking cessation program to help you quit — and stay tobacco-free.
2. Watch your alcohol consumption.
With alcohol, the main cancer mechanism is how it breaks down in our bodies. The ethanol in alcohol is metabolized through acetaldehyde, which is a poisonous byproduct and a known carcinogen.
After you drink, the alcohol is metabolized as acetaldehyde. It doesn't stay around in our bodies for long because it gets further broken down into less toxic compounds, and then it's eliminated in our bodies. That means the more you drink, the more you increase your risk for developing cancer.
"Acetaldehyde is a carcinogen that causes the cancer," says Chen. "So when you’re drinking large quantities of alcohol then you're going to build up acetaldehyde. And that buildup can accumulate in your saliva, your stomach acid and your GI tract."
Alcohol also has a solvent property, which means it allows other carcinogens to get into our cells and wreak havoc. So, for example, if you smoke and drink alcohol together, alcohol's solvent property helps harmful chemicals in tobacco get into the cells that line your mouth, throat and esophagus — putting you at a higher risk of developing oral cancers.
Nutrient absorption, specifically the vitamin folate, can also be affected by alcohol. Folate tells our body to stay healthy so alcohol inhibits its ability to pass that message on to the body.
"Alcohol also acts as an irritant to our bodies, specifically to the cells lining our mouths, throats and stomach cells," says Chen. "When exposed to that irritant, your cells try to repair themselves, which could lead to your cells making mistakes and mutations that lead to cancer."
3. Maintain a healthy weight.
Maintaining a healthy weight is another opportunity to reduce your risk for cancer. That means your diet plays a large role in cancer prevention.
A recent study in The Lancet Public Health revealed that younger adults (ages 25 to 49) in the U.S. are at an increased risk of developing obesity-related cancers. The study also reports that because of the obesity epidemic over the past 40 years, due in part to poor diet, younger generations have weight issues for a longer period of time than previous generations. This indicates that in the future, cancer may be more prevalent in this generation as they age into older adults.
According to Chen, carrying excessive weight is associated with increased risk for the following cancers:
- Colorectal cancer
- Gallbladder cancer
- Gastrointestinal cancers
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Post-menopausal breast cancer
- Stomach cancer
In addition to a healthy diet, exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight and keep cancer at bay.
In fact, a recent study published in Cell Metabolism found that exercise can reduce your chances of getting cancer by improving your immune system, lowering the risk of recurrence and slows cancer progression by reducing tumor growth and lessening the harsh effects of cancer treatment on the body.
Reducing your stress is key if you’re looking at trying to avoid or outlive cancer.
4. Avoid UV exposure from the sun, tanning beds and other culprits.
Yet another lifestyle factor you can control that prevents cancer is limiting ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure. Whether it's natural UV exposure from the sun or artificial UV exposure from tanning beds, both put you at risk for skin cancer. UV exposure causes gene mutations that can cause cancer.
A tan is a result of your skin cells being damaged. There are also spray tans and lotions that don’t give you exposure to UV radiation but have other concerns. There's a color additive in the spray tans and lotions called dihydroxyacetone or DHA. While DHA is FDA-approved for external application to the skin, with spray tans you could be inhaling some of that ingredient.
The FDA states that it shouldn't be inhaled or applied to areas that are covered by mucous membranes. Mucous membranes are your lips, mouth, your nose, around your eyes and your face.
"Protect yourself in a spray booth by using eye protection like goggles, nose plugs or put lip balm on beforehand and try to keep your mouth closed to not inhale that ingredient. That would be a safer way to get that sun-kissed glow that everyone wants," Chen says.
Also, don't be fooled into thinking that a spray tan offers protection against the sun. Just because you think you're getting a so-called base tan, you still have to use sunscreen.
With UV exposure, certain tanning salons might propose that it's the UV rays that help your body get vitamin D. But UVB are the UV rays needed for the body to produce vitamin D.
"The majority of tanning bulbs are actually UVA rays so you're not getting vitamin D from a tanning bed," Chen explains.
Like alcohol, UV exposure also builds up over time. So, for example, if you start young and go frequently to tanning beds, that will put you more at risk for skin cancer.
Gel manicures can also pose UV exposure risk that increases your likelihood for cancer. UVA rays are used to dry or set the polish. But once again, it's dose cumulative. If you regularly get gel manicures and you started in your teenage years, you may have a greater risk for developing cancer because you're exposing your hands to UVA rays more often.
Chen recommends giving your nails a break by not getting this type of manicure week after week.
5. Visit your doctor regularly for preventive care and well visits.
One of the best things you can do to help prevent cancer and other diseases is to see your primary care physician regularly.
"Try to prevent cancer by getting your routine care, your routine immunizations and your proper screenings," says Chen. "It's great that you are healthy, but preventive care/well visits are important because a lot of conditions, especially cancer, can be treated properly if we catch it early."
Other effective prevention strategies
All in all, your best strategy for cancer prevention, particularly for the external agents you can control, is to limit your exposures — or avoid them, if at all possible.
Gustashaw also cites the importance of stress management. "How you manage stress is associated with longevity. Stress itself is not directly associated with an increased risk of cancer, however, stress can often lead to unhealthy habits such as making unhealthy food choices, overeating, smoking, drinking and not exercising," she says.
Gustashaw adds: "Reducing your stress is key if you’re looking at trying to avoid or outlive cancer and to live longer and healthier overall."
Plenty of other opportunities for cancer prevention behavior also exist. A study from JAMA Internal Medicine found that participants with the following four lifestyle factors had approximately one-third less risk of developing cancer compared to those who had none of those lifestyle factors:
- Never having smoked
- Having a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30
- Getting physical activity more than 3.5 hours each week (or basically 30 minutes daily)
- Eating a healthy diet