In the wellness world, cancer prevention is a common topic. Unfortunately, it's often oversaturated with extreme techniques that have not been scientifically proven to be effective.
Just think about how many times we've all heard the phrase “that causes cancer." Even though this may be beneficial in raising cancer awareness, it's also made many of us paranoid and misinformed.
First, it's important to know that family history is one of the greatest risk factors for certain cancers. So if you have a strong predisposition for a certain type of cancer, prevention and screening is key.
However, your family history doesn’t necessarily have to dictate your future. As a clinical psychologist who has spent a lot of time working with cancer patients and survivors, I know that even though genetics may increase your chances, you do have control over the lifestyle you choose. Genes, though powerful, can only exert their effect up to a certain point — the rest is up to us.
In fact, research has shown there are some clear and concise, evidence-based healthy living strategies to help lower your risk of cancer:
1. Get screened.
Early screening can help prevent many cancer diagnoses and even deaths. For example, screening for cervical and colorectal cancers can find precancerous cells, which can be treated before they become cancerous. And pap smears, colonoscopies, and mammograms help find cancers in their early stages, increasing the odds for treatment success.
Guidelines may change over time. For example, lung cancer screening has not been part of preventive medical care in the past but has recently been included for people who are at high risk (older adults with a history of heavy smoking). In other cases, experts have recommended less frequent screenings, for fear of false positives and overdiagnosis.
So, talk to your physician to make sure you're complying with all of the current preventive guidelines, which vary depending on your age, sex, and risk factors.
2. Quit smoking (right now!).
Tobacco use is one of the main risk factors in the development of cancer in the lungs, head and neck, pancreas, and urinary tract. In fact, it's the leading cause of cancer diagnoses and death.
However, within 10 years of quitting this habit, there can be up to a 90 percent reduction in lung cancer risk. Smoking cessation is one of the most powerful cancer prevention strategies, and programs can be found in almost every city nationwide. It's a hard habit to quit, so seek out professional guidance if you can.
3. Stay active.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, about 25 percent of cancer cases worldwide could be due to obesity and sedentary lifestyle. This suggests that one in four cancer diagnoses may be prevented with the help of exercise and an active lifestyle.
Studies have also shown that becoming engaged in an exercise program may reduce the risk for some types of cancer. That includes jogging, weight training, cycling, and power walking. As you become more active and start including exercise in your daily life, you will most likely reach a healthier body weight, serving as an additional protective factor against cancer development.
4. Eat a health-promoting diet.
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) was created to shed light on food and cancer investigations. Its results mainly found that a healthy diet can have a tremendous effect on our ability to prevent some cancers.
Specifically, we can help prevent intestinal and colorectal cancers through consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fish. On the other hand, processed meat (bacon, hot dogs, bologna, and ham) may be involved in the development of colorectal cancers.
While there's still more research to be done in this area, we should do what we can to reduce cancer risk by eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Start consuming more sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, legumes, blueberries, garlic, and onions. At the same time, it's also recommended to limit animal-derived foods, sugar, and fried foods.
5. Limit alcohol.
Moderate to severe alcohol consumption has been linked to various types of cancer, especially liver cancer. The combination of alcohol and tobacco use further increases the risk for cancers of the upper digestive and respiratory tract.
These results suggest that limiting the use of alcohol is key for promoting health. This doesn’t mean alcohol is all bad or cancer-causing — it only suggests that it should be consumed in moderation. So, yes, it's fine to keep drinking that glass of red wine with dinner.
6. Spend only a short time in the sun.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health, but studies suggest it can also help prevent many types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Vitamin D is absorbed through sun exposure and certain foods (like fish), as well as supplements. However, supplementation of vitamin D has provided inconsistent results for cancer prevention.
Daily exposure to sunlight is the best way to make sure you get your daily dose of this important vitamin. Just 20 minutes a day spent outdoors should do the trick.
However, make sure to use protective clothing and apply sunscreen if you plan on spending more than 20 minutes outside, as excessive sun exposure has been linked to skin cancer.
7. Practice stress management.
Stress has been found to have a profound effect on our emotional and physical health. Chronic stress can affect our endocrine response, immune function, circadian rhythm, and increase the secretion of stress-related hormones like cortisol. These physiological effects could, over time, increase the risk for breast cancer development and relapse.
However, there are various lifestyle factors that can help decrease the effects of stress and are easy to include in your daily life. These include social support, meditation, salt baths, massage therapy, sleep, yoga, vacations, and any other self-care ritual that helps you decompress from stressful life events. By managing our stress effectively, we are not only improving our quality of life but could help prevent disease.
Still, it's important to enjoy life without the constant fear of developing cancer or disease. The key is finding a balance and engaging in what makes you feel your best. These lifestyle factors only serve as a starting point for living a healthier life. Remember that you may modify them and personalize them into what works best for you.