Tips for lowering your cancer risk

February 25, 2021

Cancer is caused by a unique combination of genetic changes that cause cells to divide uncontrollably and invade normal tissues. According to the National Cancer Institute, these may be inherited genetic mutations, or, more likely, they occur throughout someone’s lifetime due to errors in the division of normal cells or because of DNA changes from certain environmental exposures. While not all cancers are preventable, there are many environmental factors we can control to help minimize risk. Here are some of the top ways you can limit your risk of developing cancer.

Nutrition

Eating a balanced, mainly plant-based diet, with plenty of water and lean protein, is beneficial for your health across the board. There has been plenty of research done on links between diet and cancer, with findings showing that red and processed meats, such as bacon and hot dogs, may be linked with a higher risk of developing cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. Meanwhile, many plant-based foods, like vegetables, nuts, berries, and others, have naturally-occurring phytonutrients, which may help prevent chronic diseases, including cancer. Foods that are rich in dietary fiber, such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, help maintain a healthy microbiome in the digestive tract, which has also been linked with a lower cancer risk, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Vitamin D has also been shown to be beneficial to patients with advanced colorectal cancer, according to research led by Kimmie Ng, MD, MPD, director of Translational Research in Dana-Farber’s Gastrointestinal Cancer Center and director of the Institute’s Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center.

“Colorectal cancer is highly preventable, and studies estimate that the risk of developing this cancer can be reduced by approximately 70 percent through healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors,” Ng says. “Our research suggests that many of these same factors may also be protective after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer, particularly vitamin D, which we are currently studying in a national randomized phase 3 clinical trial.”

Exercise

Exercise is also a key component of a healthy lifestyle, and moderate exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancer and of it recurring after treatment. It can also help people maintain a healthy body weight, as obesity has been linked to multiple types of cancer, including breast, endometrial, and esophageal. 

Exercise and its connection to cancer is the focus of a new Dana-Farber Tiger Team led by Jennifer Ligibel, MD, director of Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrated Therapies and Healthy Living and a medical oncologist within the Breast Oncology Center, and Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, director of the Center for Energy Metabolism and Chronic Disease and Stanley J. Korsmeyer Professor of Cell Biology and Medicine. Tiger Teams pull together Dana-Farber experts from various specialties, who convene outside of their typical work to collaborate on solving some of cancer’s greatest challenges, including better understanding the role of exercise in cancer prevention and treatment. While much is still unknown about the role of exercise, this work is more critical than ever, as obesity continues to be a public health challenge, raising the risk of many cancers.

“We know that people who exercise have lower rates of many common cancers, such as breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers. However, we don’t know how exercise lowers cancer risk, or whether some types of exercise could have a more significant impact than others,” Ligibel says. “Through this new Tiger Team, we’re collaborating to try to learn how something as simple as taking a walk or lifting weights could impact cancer, in hopes of one day being able to prescribe exercise as part of cancer prevention and treatment.”

Vaccinations

Another important piece of cancer prevention is vaccination, particularly the HPV vaccine, which protects against the highest-risk strains of HPV, including 16 and 18, which are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer, as well as vaginal, oral, and anal cancers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV causes nearly 36,000 cancer cases in men and women each year, the majority of which could be prevented with a vaccine. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for girls, boys, and young adults between the ages of 11 and 26, although it can be given as young as 9 years old. Since the vaccine has been in use in the United States, infection with the HPV types that cause most related cancers has dropped 71 percent in young women, according to the CDC.

Smoking

While smoking is most often connected to lung cancer, the chemicals in tobacco harm nearly every part of the body and have been linked to cancers in the lungs, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidneys, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum, as well as increasing the risk of acute myeloid leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute. Quitting smoking decreases the risk of developing cancer, among other illnesses such as lung disease and heart disease, and it’s never too late to stop smoking, although the earlier you quit, the more benefits you will see. If you are looking for resources to hit quit smoking, you can visit SmokeFree.gov.

Screenings

Many cancers can be prevented—or caught in their earliest stages—through routine screenings. These include mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies or stool-based tests, and PSA (prostate-specific antigen) tests. Screening types and frequency may vary based on factors such as family history, but the American Cancer Society generally recommends the following:

  • Annual mammograms beginning at age 45
  • Regular pap smears to prevent cervical cancer beginning at age 25
  • Colonoscopies or stool-based tests to detect pre-cancerous polyps and colorectal cancers beginning at age 45
  • PSA tests to detect prostate cancer may begin at age 50, but are not always recommended; men should speak with their doctor before pursuing testing

Protecting your skin by wearing sunscreen is also important for skin cancer prevention, and doing regular at-home checks for anything out of the ordinary can help detect any issues early. Screenings for other diseases, such as lung cancer and endometrial cancer, are also available for those at an elevated risk for those cancers. While the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many people away from unnecessary trips to the doctor, it is important to stay on track with screening recommendations to manage cancer risk. Talk to your doctor about what screenings are right for you.

This post is part of a series for Cancer Prevention Month, February 2021. With your generous support, the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute are working to stop cancer before it starts, by improving prevention and detection for adults and children in Boston and around the world. You can support this lifesaving work by making a donation today.