If you stay out in the sun too long and get burned, your pain and flaking skin are pretty clear signals that you could’ve made a healthier choice, like re-applying sunscreen. It can be harder to connect the dots between your actions and something that happens many years later, like cancer.
But the numbers reveal connections between cancer and our everyday habits that might not be obvious. A 2017 study found that 45 percent of cancer deaths are linked to our lifestyles, like whether we smoke, what kind of food we eat and how much activity we get.
This is actually good news. It means that cancer is often preventable and at least partially under our control.
AdventHealth’s CREATION Life philosophy teaches that people who believe they have control over their own lives are healthier and live longer. In other words, it’s not only the choices we make that make us healthy; it’s our belief that we’re in the driver’s seat that can keep us stronger in body, mind and spirit.
Here are seven healthy choices you can make to keep your cancer risk as low as possible:
Stop smoking — or being around people who do
Cigarette smoking, according to that 2017 study, is responsible for about 29 percent of all cancer deaths. Being around people who smoke can raise your risk of lung cancer, too.
It’s not easy to quit, but it’s possible. Your best bet is to talk to your family doctor about quitting. Your doctor will know what approach will work best for you and be able to tell you about the support available to help you quit.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
You probably knew this one was coming. But it’s true that extra pounds can raise your risk of cancer, in part because it causes the body to produce more hormones like estrogen.
Higher weight raises risk for many types of cancer, including breast cancer for women over 50.
Your body-mass index, or BMI, isn’t a perfect measure of your weight, but it’s a start. To figure out your BMI, enter your height and weight into this simple online calculator.
Because a pound equals about 3,500 calories, you can lose a pound of weight a week by cutting 500 calories a day. You could hit that mark on a given day by, for example, not drinking a 20-ounce soda and briskly walking for 45 minutes.
3. Protect your skin
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country, but also one of the most preventable. The basics are pretty simple: avoid indoor tanning, use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and wear protective clothing, like a hat and wrap-around sunglasses.
And remember that sun safety isn’t only for the beach; anytime you’ll be outdoors during the day, especially in late spring and early summer, take precautions. To make the healthy choice convenient, keep sunscreen where you can’t forget it, like a purse or in your car.
For more sun safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, check out their website on the topic.
4. Get moving
Being active helps you reach a healthy weight, sure, but it also lowers your cancer risk separately from its weight benefits. You don’t have to be a gym rat — getting active a few times a week will lower your risk for colon, breast and other cancers, according to a National Institutes of Health fact sheet.
A different 2017 study, which found 41 percent of cancer cases were due to lifestyle factors, found that a lack of activity was the second-highest cause, after smoking.
For adults, the recommendations to get moving include either of the following:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, meaning things that make you breathe as hard as you do during a brisk walk, like walking, biking and some housework
- 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, like running
An exercise plan should also include at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities, like weight lifting.
Just as getting moving can lower your cancer risk, extended periods of inactivity, like sitting while watching TV, can raise your risk. Some studies have found that inactivity can raise cancer risks even among people who exercise, but one large study found that exercise can counteract the effects of inactivity.
5. Eat lots of fruits, vegetables and fiber
While their health benefits are no secret, they also apply to cancer risk. One common recommendation is to eat at least two and a half cups of vegetables and fruits per day.
In addition, while some supplements and vitamins claim to have the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, the American Cancer Society says the benefits of healthy food cannot be replicated in a pill or powder. These experts also give a mixed verdict on juicing your fruits and vegetables: While it’s a good way to get more of these foods, they have less fiber, and fruit juices can have plenty of sugar and calories.
The verdict is to have some fruits and vegetables with every meal, with fruit juice in moderation.
Speaking of fiber, some studies suggest foods with lots of it lower your risk of getting colorectal cancer. High-fiber foods include fruits like raspberries, vegetables like green peas and whole-wheat bread.
6. Cut down on processed food
Some studies have suggested eating lots of processed meats, like bacon and cold cuts, may cause stomach or colorectal cancer. For this reason, many experts warn against eating processed meat regularly.
In addition, some methods of cooking meats — including frying, broiling or grilling at very high temperatures — might form cancer-causing chemicals. It’s not clear how much these chemicals contribute to cancer risk, but steaming, poaching, stewing and microwaving meats are probably safer.
Vegetables are a great choice to replace these processed meats. In addition to fiber reducing colorectal cancer risk, the phytochemicals found in vegetables (like flavonoids) can help to prevent cancer and slow its growth rate.
7. Get vaccinated
The way that viruses reproduce — by entering a host cell and hijacking its genetic machinery to make more viruses — makes them a potential cancer risk.
Several viruses have been linked with cancer in humans, including:
- Human papillomavirus, or HPV. A vaccine, called Gardasil 9, has recently been approved for use in people between the ages of 9 and 45. It’s especially important for women, as nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.
- Hepatitis B. This virus can raise your risk of liver cancer. The vaccine is recommended for all children younger than 19 as well as certain adults at high risk of the virus, including people who are in a relationship with someone with hepatitis B.
It’s important to note that in many cases, cancer is out of our control, caused by inherited problems with our DNA or for reasons doctors can’t figure out.
But by taking an approach to health that stresses prevention, AdventHealth wants to give its patients tools to take control over their health. To schedule an appointment, visit our website.