27 Cancer Prevention Tips Doctors Want You to Hear
There's way more you can do to avoid this deadly disease than you might think.
Cancer is no joke. This year alone, it’s predicted that there will be 1.8 million new cases of cancer and 607,000 deaths to the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. And while the cancer death rate has dropped 27 percent over the past 25 years due to reductions in cancer-causing habits and advancements in early detection and treatment, there are still many things everyone can do to decrease their risk. To help you learn exactly how to stay healthy and cancer-free, we asked doctors for the cancer-prevention tips they wish their patients knew.
Decreasing the amount of meat you consume is one of the best things you can do in terms of cancer prevention. “Consume a plant-based diet,” says Radhika Acharya-Leon, DO, medical director at UCHealth Cancer Center – Highlands Ranch.
According to Michigan Medicine, fiber-packed plant foods—such as legumes and whole grains—have nutrients that can help reduce your risk of several types of cancer. For example, your colorectal cancer risk can be slashed by 21 percent simply by eating 6 ounces, or less than a cup, of whole grains a day.
Increase your weight-training sessions.
Any method of working out is a great way to boost your overall health and fight off cancer. But one extra-effective method? “Exercise with cardiovascular and weight-training for 30 minutes per day,” says Acharya-Leon.
One 2018 study of more than 80,000 people that was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology even found that strength-training just twice a week resulted in a 31-percent reduction in cancer mortality.
Check your home for radon.
Radon gas isn't something people talk about every day, but it occurs naturally in soil and rock and can make its way into your home over time. Unfortunately, if you breathe enough of it, it could cause serious health issues. In fact, it's the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Radon is a gas that causes lung cancer and it could be in your home,” says Wallace Akerley, MD, co-director of the Thoracic Cancer Program at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “You can't see it or smell it, but there's an easy, inexpensive way to find out if your home has it: Order a radon test kit.”
Be mindful of your time in the sun.
Getting some vitamin D has its benefits, including an instant mood boost. Just be sure you’re being mindful when spending time outside to lessen your risk of skin cancer. “The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect yourself from the sun with sun avoidance and protection,” says dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD. “Avoiding the sun’s most harmful rays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and wearing a broad-spectrum SPF-30 or higher sunscreen, sun protective clothing, broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses when you’re outside is essential.”
Quit eating so much junk.
If your diet is loaded with sugary soft drinks, white flour, and fatty foods, you could be putting yourself at risk for cancer. According to Adam Kreitenberg, MD, board-certified rheumatologist with the company 1MD, the typical American diet contains a high amount of processed foods, and that’s not good for your body. “Diets that are high in sugars and fats and low in fruits and vegetables can increase inflammation in the body and place you at risk for the development of different cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes,” he says.
Know what's crazy? According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is responsible for 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S. And that's not just lung cancer, either.
“Tobacco use also increases the risk for mouth, lip, nose, and sinus cancers; voice box and throat cancers; esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, kidney, and colon cancers; uterine, cervical, ovarian, rectal, and bladder cancers; and the blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia,” says Lonny Yarmus, DO, FCCP, the clinical director of the division of pulmonary and critical care at Johns Hopkins. “Smoking contributes to a host of other health problems as well, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory disorders from asthma to emphysema, low birth weight, and erectile dysfunction.”
Limit your alcohol consumption.
Drinking too much alcohol isn’t just going to make you feel bad. It can also increase your risk of multiple types of cancer, including colorectal cancer, liver cancer, and mouth and throat cancers. It also plays a big role in the development of breast cancer.
“The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer,” says Edo Paz, MD, a cardiologist with K Health. “The American Cancer Society recommends that women who drink have no more than one alcoholic beverage a day. A drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).”
Get regular colonoscopies.
Many people assume colonoscopies are simply done to find colon cancer. But what doctors want you to know is that they’re key in prevention. Colon cancer starts as polyps, or non-cancerous growths. And according to James Church, MD, a “colonoscopy actually prevents colon cancer by allowing the diagnosis and removal of the precancerous polyps.” If more people got colonoscopies, approximately 60 percent of colorectal cancer cases would be prevented, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Know your ABCDEs.
According to Sobel, you should regularly check your skin for any irregularities. To know what to look for, memorize the mnemonic device ABCDE: asymmetry, border (jagged and uneven), color (varying shades of white, red, black, or brown), diameter (if it’s growing or bigger than a pencil-tip eraser), or if it’s evolving in any way.
“Pay attention to any moles and marks on your skin,” he says. “Perform self-examinations of your moles and new growths at least once a month, or any lesions that simply won’t go away. Sometimes what you think is a stubborn pimple may actually be skin cancer lesion.”
Go in for regular pap smears.
No woman likes going in for her annual check-up. But getting regular Pap smears is incredibly important in preventing cervical cancer.
“Cervical cancer is, thankfully, one of the cancers we can detect and treat early,” says Thomas Morrissey, MD, head of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at Cleveland Clinic Florida – Weston. “In fact, we most often detect precancerous changes through Pap smears and HPV testing and are able to treat the precancerous changes and prevent cancer from developing. Regular Pap smears are essential.”
Get on the pill.
Birth control helps prevent pregnancies, but it can also be important for women in decreasing the risk of gynecologic cancer. “Prior studies have shown that taking oral birth control pills decreases the risk of ovarian cancer,” says Haider Mahdi, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “Also, being compliant with getting your Pap tests significantly lowers the risk of cervical cancer.”
Know your genetic risk for skin cancer.
While basal cell skin cancer is from sunburns, squamous cell skin cancers are from cumulative sun exposure over time. And according to Campbell, even though sun exposure increases your chances of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—it also has a genetic component too, which is exactly why you should know your family history.
“If you have a first-degree relative with melanoma, that increases your risk. And if you have many moles, that also increases your risk,” she explains. “Melanoma can arise de novo—aka without a prior mole present—or from an existing mole, so if you see something new or changing, get it checked. It’s normal to get new moles until about your mid-30s, but it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to getting something checked if it’s new or has changed.”
Don’t just wear sunscreen during the summer—wear it daily.
Contrary to popular belief, sunscreen isn’t just important on hot summer days. It’s also important on cloudy days, winter days, rainy days—basically, you’ve gotta wear it year-round to reap the cancer-fighting benefits.
“Most of both nonmelanoma skin cancer and melanoma skin cancer are directly caused by UV radiation. That’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen daily and protect your skin from the sun year-round,” says Howard Sobel, MD, New York City-based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and founder of Sobel Skin. “Even in the colder months, always wear a broad-spectrum SPF on any exposed skin. During the summer, if you’re going to be out in the sun for a prolonged period of time, apply a broad-spectrum UV protection at least 20 minutes before stepping out into the sun.”
Know your family history.
Knowing your family history is important in helping prevent any cancer—especially prostate cancer. “The first step is identifying your family history and risk, then screen appropriately,” says Rana R. McKay, MD, medical oncologist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health. According to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, if a man's father or brother had prostate cancer, they have a twofold-increased risk of developing it themselves—and even more so if it was diagnosed under 55 years old or affected multiple members of their family.
Stay at a healthy weight.
There are many health issues that can result from putting on too many extra pounds, from diabetes to heart disease. And cancer is one of the most serious reasons to make an effort to keep your weight in check. “A majority of American adults weigh more than recommended, and being overweight or obese puts people at higher risk for a number of cancers,” says Brenda Fitzgerald, MD. “By getting to and keeping a healthy weight, we all can play a role in cancer prevention.”
Stay up-to-date on your vaccinations.
You might not think it’s a huge deal to put off the vaccinations you need, but if you get them when you’re supposed to, you could be doing a lot of good in helping your body fight off cancer. “Cervical cancer, anal cancer, liver cancer, and various forms of infection. We know we can have a dramatic effect on several of these by getting your routine immunizations at the right time,” says Timothy Moynihan, MD, an emeritus Mayo Clinic oncologist.
Stop tanning for good.
If you want a nice, healthy glow, nothing is healthy about getting it from the sun. Instead, go for self-tanner—laying out or hitting up a tanning bed is basically asking for skin cancer.
“There’s no such thing as a safe tan. Even if your skin doesn’t burn, that doesn’t mean your skin cells aren’t subject to UV damage at a molecular level,” Sobel says. “Tanning beds typically emit UVA rays, which are longer and able to penetrate more deeply to cause long-lasting damage, including skin cancer … To get a bronzed look, self-tanners are the only way to go. The formulations nowadays are cosmetically elegant and easy to apply and most don’t clog pores.”
Take some aspirin.
Colorectal cancer—which affects the colon or rectum—is responsible for 100,000 deaths per year and affects both men and women almost equally, according to the American Cancer Society. If you’re at risk, one way to help prevent it is reaching for something that’s already in your medicine cabinet: aspirin.
“It's not recommended for widespread use because aspirin has a risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcer formation. But someone with an obvious colorectal cancer risk may benefit from one 325-milligram dose per day,” says Charles Fuchs, MD, director of the Yale Cancer Center. “Talk to your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits.”
Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen.
You’re not quite off the hook if you apply sunscreen. You also have to make sure it’s not a one-and-done situation by continually applying it throughout the day for the best skin cancer prevention. “Sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours or if you sweat or swim, as there’s no such thing as waterproof sunscreen,” says Campbell. “Because of that, the FDA has even made sunscreen labels say ‘water resistant’ now.”
Make physical activity a priority.
Making some healthy lifestyle can help lower your risk of cancer. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), past research has shown it may lower your risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, and lung cancer. “It’s important to get regular physical activity,” says Dr. Paz. “Most healthy adults should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly.”
Drop your bad habits.
If you have a long list of bad habits you haven’t dropped yet, you’re putting yourself in even more danger. "We know that when you combine heavy use of alcohol with other things—such as smoking—it clearly increases the risk of things like head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, and other types of cancer. More so than does just smoking by itself,” says Moynihan.
Say goodbye to red meat.
There’s a long list of reasons why red meat and processed meat is bad for your health, one of them being that it could increase your risk of both stomach and colorectal cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
“We think it's because of nitrogen-based compounds in the meat called heterocyclic amines, which are generated in the cooking process. Charring meat can make this worse," says Fuchs. “Have no more than two servings of red meat as a main dish per week.”
Don’t skip your screenings.
Simply not skipping out on your screenings can be a game-changer for cancer prevention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends regular screening tests for breast, cervical, colorectal cancers, and—for those who are at a high risk—lung cancer. Also, don’t be afraid to perform self-exams at home between screenings for breast cancer.
“Regular mammograms and self breast-checks can be important tools to detect breast cancer early,” Paz says. “It results in less aggressive forms of treatment and higher survival rates.”
Remember to use sunscreen on forgotten-about areas.
You've slathered sunscreen on your face, shoulders, back, chest—basically everywhere you can think of. But there might be some common areas you're forgetting about that could harm your health. “You’ll need to apply more sunscreen than you think you need,” Sobel says. “Remember to apply in areas that are often forgotten, like behind the ears, behind the neck, the scalp, and in between the toes. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen on your lips as well.”
Avoid secondhand smoke.
It’s not just smoking that can cause cancer—it’s also secondhand smoke. “Exposure to secondhand smoke raises your risk of lung cancer and heart disease, two of the most important causes of suffering and premature death. That’s why so many communities have mandated smoke-free indoor public places,” says Anthony Komaroff, MD. According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, and 70 of them are linked to cancer. Make sure you're steering clear at work, in public places, at home, in the car, and wherever else you can.
Pay attention to your sunscreen’s label.
Every type of sunscreen is equally protective, right? Wrong. According to Campbell, there’s one key quality to look for (aside from it being at least 30 SPF!) that tells you whether it will keep your skin safe or not. “Broad spectrum is a key term, as it indicates protection against both UVA-aging rays and UVB-burning rays,” she says. “We need protection from both to prevent skin cancers.”
Get an annual skin check done by a dermatologist.
While you can be on the lookout at home for any changes in your skin, it’s also important to visit a dermatologist at least once a year so they can give everything a closer examination.
“When skin cancer cells are caught early enough, they can be surgically removed to prevent cancerous cells from spreading. Even if you diligently perform skin examinations at home, a board-certified dermatologist is trained to spot potential problems quickly,” Sobel says. “Plus, they can see parts of the body that are hard for you to see, like your scalp, the back of your neck, and your back.”
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