In a world full of bad news, here’s a bit of good: A third to a half of all cancers are preventable.
Cancer deaths have been on the decline for more than three decades—and stayed on the decline, even with the pandemic raging, according to a recent report from the American Cancer Society. And they’re reliably dropping by a percentage point or two each year, Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, tells Fortune.
The positive trend is due in part to advances in treatment, including vaccines that can fight cancer in those who have it and stop it from returning in those who’ve gone into remission. (There are also vaccines that can prevent it from occurring altogether.)
But the steady drop in deaths is also due to the fact that so much of cancer is preventable—and word is getting out.
Almost 610,000 cancer deaths are expected in the U.S. this year, Knudsen says—a little more than 1,670 per day. The silver lining: “Eighteen percent of new cancer cases—and 16% of cancer deaths—are attributable to things people can modify.”
Here are five relatively simple lifestyle changes you can make to significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer—and improve your overall health.
1. Limit your drinking or cut it out altogether.
You read that right: Go dry. Period. Full stop.
Alcohol “has now been associated with five to six types of cancer,” Dr. Ernest Hawk, head of the Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences division at the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Fortune. “We used to think there was a cardiologic benefit, but that’s largely been refuted.”
While the most recent recommendations call for total avoidance of alcohol to quash associated cancer risk, if you’re not ready to cut it out completely, women shouldn’t consume more than one drink a day at most—two a day for men, according to Hawk.
2. Avoid known carcinogens like tobacco (and secondhand smoke, too).
Smoking is bad for your health—especially for your lungs. That’s not news. But despite widespread knowledge of the fact, 14% to 15% of the population still smokes, Hawk tells Fortune.
Besides being linked to lung cancer, smoking can also lead to other types of cancer like pancreatic and bladder, Knudsen adds.
Those who are addicted to nicotine “really deserve a lot of attention and assistance and treatment, which is now readily available,” Hawk says. “It’s important to know they’re not in it alone.”
Most smokers—more than 95%—can’t quit on their own, he says. The best strategy: “a combination of medication with counseling.” If you smoke and are open to quitting, contact your primary-care provider for help—or call the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW to speak with a quitting coach.
It’s worth mentioning that secondhand smoke can also be incredibly deadly. It’s responsible for nearly 7,500 lung cancer deaths annually among U.S. adults who don’t smoke, according to the CDC. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke increase their lung cancer risk by 20% to 30%. So avoid it like the plague.
3. Manage your weight with diet and exercise.
Not only will doing so improve your heart health and help keep your blood pressure under control, but it will also reduce your risk of developing cancer in the future, experts say.
The best advice: Exercise and eat healthy across your life span. Some of the tips offered to Fortune readers:
- Fill about two-thirds of your plate with fruits and veggies, and the remainder with healthy proteins like fish and poultry, Hawk advises.
- Make sure your diet is varied. “Color matters,” Knudsen says, adding that dark green, red, and orange vegetables are desirable, as are fiber-rich veggies like beans and peas. And be sure to throw in a generous helping of whole grains, as well as a rainbow of fruit choices. Avoid highly processed foods.
- Make sure you get between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous exercise, each week, Knudsen recommends.
The closer one gets to the higher end of that range, the better, Knudsen says, adding that experts don’t yet fully understand just why there’s a correlation between exercise and cancer reduction.
Still, “you should feel good on your treadmill or out taking a vigorous walk, knowing that you’re not just doing good things for your body, but that you’re engaging in cancer prevention as well,” she adds.
While exercise is key, it’s not a cure-all. Be sure you’re not living a sedentary lifestyle otherwise, she cautions: “Get up and move around regularly.”
4. Wear sunscreen and don’t use tanning beds.
Once again, the goal here is to reduce your exposure to sunburns across your life span, Hawk says.
“Getting burned early in life is associated with long-term risk of skin cancer,” he advises.
When it comes to sun safety, he recommends the following:
- Wear protective clothing.
- Avoid going out in the heat of the day.
- Wear sunscreen every day.
“All the common-sense stuff your mom taught you turns out to be right,” he says.
5. Learn your family risk—even if the conversation is uncomfortable.
It’s good to know if you have a history of cancer in your family. But it’s particularly crucial to be aware of cancer history among first-degree relatives—parents, siblings, and children, Hawk advises.
“Whether they had precancerous lesions or cancers, it feeds into your risk,” he says.
If relatives have a history of cancer, let your primary-care provider know. You’ll likely be screened earlier than recommended for that type of cancer.
“At least historically, families have been reluctant to share news of a cancer diagnosis, even with relatives,” he says. “That’s the wrong message. Share exposures, at least among blood relatives, so everyone is aware that they may be at increased risk.”
Some of these lifestyle changes sound fairly simple—but we all know such things are easier said than done. Those looking to improve their overall health and decrease their cancer risk should know that “you don’t have to do this overnight,” Knudsen says.
More good news: The changes get easier with time.
“Once you start down this path, people often find they feel better—which is positive reinforcement,” she adds.
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