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Learn which simple lifestyle changes can prevent one third of the most common cancers
The best cancer preventions are a healthy diet and regular exercise
Cancer may be one of the leading causes of death in North America, but that doesn’t mean it’s not preventable. Cancer risk can be managed – and by doing more than just slapping on sunscreen.
“Cancer is frightening and upsetting,” says Dr. Susan Higginbotham, director of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research. But “we are not helpless before this disease. Cancer is not fate.”
Three simple steps could prevent one third of the most common cancers – 340,000 annually in the US alone:
1. Eat smart
2. Move more
3. Stay lean
“Combine these steps with not smoking,” says Dr. Higginbotham, “And it becomes clear that cancer is a largely preventable disease.”
Obviously, if you’ve got a family history or you’re concerned about risk factors, you should learn the signs of cancer and see a doctor to review your health profile and whether you qualify for cancer prevention programs, genetic testing, cancer detection and pathology tests. But, through simple steps you can avoid causes of cancer.
Maintaining a lean physique is critical to prevent cancer, says Dr. Higginbotham. “After not smoking, keeping off excess body fat is the most important step to lower cancer risk. Carrying excess body fat is a cause of seven different kinds of cancer, including colon, esophageal and post-menopausal breast cancer.”
Strive to be physically active regularly. “When it comes to cancer, inactivity is the enemy,” says Dr. Higginbotham. She recommends starting with half an hour and building to an hour of moderate activity daily to help prevent cancer.
Eat Mostly Plants
Another cancer prevention essential involves eating a diet rich in non-starchy plant-based foods. “Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans provide vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that offer cancer-prevention benefits — but they also fill you up without loading you down with fat and calories,” says Dr. Higginbotham.
You should also avoid:
Dr. Sacha Elliott, a naturopathic physician at Canopy Integrated Health, recommends looking for:
Limit Alcohol Intake
Sure, a little red wine can reduce cardiovascular problems, but alcohol actually increases your cancer risk. “Because of the strong link to breast cancer, we advise women to stick to no more than one drink a day — men are advised to stick to two,” says Dr. Higginbotham.
Don’t Eat Mouldy Cereals and Legumes
Okay, chances are you weren’t lining up to do that. But mouldy foods contain aflatoxins, which can cause liver cancer.
Take Vitamins, Especially Vitamin D
Make sure you get enough vitamins and nutrients. “Vitamin D has been shown to help slow the growth and spread of cancer and is often deficient in Canadians, so I advise supplementing, especially in the winter months,” adds Dr. Elliott.
Moms who breastfeed reduce their cancer risk – and cut their child’s chances of being overweight or obese.
Infections and viruses have been linked to cancer. Condoms and vaccines can be considered cancer preventions in that they help to protect against some of these infections and viruses:
Live well. “Science is tuning into the fact that our thoughts and mood have a huge impact on our physical health,” says Dr. Elliott. She encourages people to stay positive, take joy in life’s ups and downs, laugh often and manage stress, so “our bodies are in a much better state to prevent chronic disease like cancer.”
Keep a Sense of Humour
Health professional Cathy Russell sees humour as a critical tool to prevent cancer – for herself and others. Russell, a physiotherapist from The Foundation for Integrated Health, keeps a long list of fitness-related cancer preventions: Zumba dance, core exercises, yoga, sports, and hikes with her dog. And she recently got into stand up comedy. “My passion has always been to be a support and tonic to other people, either as a physiotherapist or as a ‘humour being,’” says Russell. “Doing all of these things, I believe, will help me prevent cancer in myself and anyone I come in contact with.”
Simple lifestyle changes can help mitigate the causes of cancer. Still, “there are no guarantees. Not every cancer has been shown to be related to lifestyle factors, of course, and healthy people can and do get the disease,” emphasizes Dr. Higginbotham. “But what the science makes clear is that everyone can lower their risk by making small, everyday choices.”
Try this interactive tool to measure your cancer risk factors and get tips on appropriate cancer preventions.