What Can I Do to Prevent Cancer?

You've heard a lot about how important it is to cut your risk of cancer, but you probably wonder: Just how much is really in your own hands?

"There is no bomb-proof way to completely prevent cancer," says James Hamrick, MD, MPH, chief of oncology at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. But changes to your lifestyle and the right screening tests can lower your chances of getting the disease.

Tests That Check for Cancer

Tests for certain kinds of cancer, like colorectal and cervical, may catch it before it develops.

Colon cancer, for example, usually starts with growths in your colon called polyps. If your tests spot them, your doctor can often take them out before they turn into cancer.

There are several tests that check for colon polyps:

Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. In these procedures, your doctor uses a thin tube with a tiny video camera on the end to look inside your colon and rectum. A colonoscopy lets your doctor see those entire areas. But he can only examine part of the colon with a sigmoidoscopy.

Fecal occult blood test (FOBT). It looks for blood in your bowel movement, which could be a sign of a polyp or cancer.

To check for cervical cancer in women, doctors use two types of tests:

Pap test. It can often find changes in cells before they turn into cancer.

HPV (humanpapilloma virus) test. It looks for infections that may lead to the disease.

Vaccines

Some may lower your chances of getting cancer. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine may prevent cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer. Getting a hepatitis B vaccine may lower your risk of liver cancer.

'Chemoprevention'

Scientists are studying this method to see if it can keep some cancers away. It involves taking a man-made or natural substance.

So far, results suggest that meds called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMS), like tamoxifen and raloxifene, may lower the risk of breast cancer in high-risk women.

It's also possible that finasteride and dutasteride reduce the chances of getting prostate cancer.

Surgery

Some women with a high risk of breast cancer choose to have one or both breasts removed as a way to prevent it from developing. This is called "prophylactic" mastectomy.

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For instance, some women find out they're at higher risk for this type of cancer because they have changes to their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Or they may have a strong family history of the disease.   

If that's your situation, you and your doctor may discuss the possibility of a mastectomy, even if you don't have signs of cancer.

Other surgeries, like tubal ligation and hysterectomy, may lower your chances of getting a certain type of ovarian cancer. But doctors don't recommend them unless they're needed for other medical reasons.

Lifestyle Changes

You can lower your risk of getting cancer by making healthy choices.

Don't smoke. If you have a tobacco habit, it's time to quit.

Smoking is clearly linked to lung cancer. It also may raise your chances of getting cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, bladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, cervix, colon, and some kinds of leukemia.

Also, avoid places where you might breathe in the smoke from other people's cigarettes, because it also raises your risk.

Stay out of the sun. You can slash your odds of skin cancer if you limit your contact with the sun's rays. Follow these tips:

  • Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Stay in the shade when you're outside.
  • Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs.
  • Pop on a hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoid the sun when it's strongest -- between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Don't use indoor tanning beds.

Keep to a healthy weight. "Obesity causes breast and endometrial cancer, so weight control is important," says Alfred Neugut, MD, PhD, co-director of the Cancer Prevention Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital. It's also linked to cancers of the colon and rectum, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas.

If you're overweight, it helps to shed even a few pounds.

Eat well. Make sure you get plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. They have fiber, which is linked to a lower risk of colon cancer.

Look for foods with beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E. They're types of "antioxidants," which may play a role in preventing cancer.

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"Limit red meat, especially processed meat. Save bacon for special occasions, if you eat it at all," Hamrick says. Processed meats, like deli meats, hams, and hot dogs, may be linked to colorectal and stomach cancer.

Try not to char your food. You want to cook it enough to kill germs, but frying, broiling, or grilling at high temperatures may bump up your cancer risk. Instead, try braising, steaming, or poaching.

You may have heard that supplements like selenium and vitamin E can cut your risk. But there isn't enough evidence to suggest it's true. Some supplements may even increase your risk.

Exercise. The more you move, the better. It may lower your chances of getting breast, colon, endometrium, prostate, and other cancers.

Swim, jog, walk, or do anything that gets you moving. If you're starting out, try walking. "It's inexpensive, time-efficient, and can be done with others," Hamrick says.

Aim for 150 minutes or more every week.

Cut back on how much you sit, lie around, and watch TV.

Don't drink too much alcohol. It's been linked to mouth, voice box, throat, liver, breast, and colon cancer.

You don't have to avoid it altogether. Think moderation. Stick to one drink a day if you're a woman, two if you're a man.

All these things may lower your risk, but they're not a guarantee. So far we don't have a 100% way to prevent cancer.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 24, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

David Cosgrove, MD, Compass Oncology.

James Hamrick, MD, MPH, chief of oncology, Kaiser Permanente.

Alfred Neugut, MD, PhD, co-director, Cancer Prevention Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Michael J. Schultz, MD, FACS, medical director, The Breast Center at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

American Cancer Society: "Can ovarian cancer be prevented?" "American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention," "Frequently Asked Questions About Colonoscopy and Sigmoidoscopy," "New Screening Guidelines for Cervical Cancer."

Breastcancer.org: "Prophylactic Mastectomy."

CDC: "Colorectal (Colon) Cancer," "Cancer Screening Tests," "Gynecologic Cancers," "How to Prevent Cancer or Find It Early," "Healthy Choices," "What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Skin Cancer?" "Secondhand Smoke (SHS) Facts," "Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention."

National Cancer Institute: "Cancer Prevention Overview–Patient Version (PDQ®)."

American Cancer Society.

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