Although there is no single way to prevent all cancers, there are things you can do that help lower your risk. Many of them are simple, everyday habits. Others are about working with your doctor to understand your unique risks -- and manage them.
At least 42% of cancer cases in the U.S. could be prevented by steps such as not smoking, not drinking too much, and leading an active lifestyle with a healthy diet, according to the American Cancer Society.
These strategies won’t prevent all cancers. There are active people who eat right, never smoke, and still get cancer. And it’s not about blaming people who do get cancer, no matter what their lifestyle is like. Many things affect your cancer risk, and they’re not all within our control. But there are steps that you can take to make cancer less likely.
Schedule Your Checkup
And keep that date! Cancer screenings are crucial. They make it possible to detect abnormal cells -- ones that could become cancer -- before the cancer starts. Some of these include:
Breast cancer screening. These include regular mammograms also recommended for many women. Exactly when you should start and how often to get them are a matter of some debate, so ask your doctor what’s best for you. The guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are that women ages 50-74 with an average risk of breast cancer get a mammogram every 2 years, and that women in their 40s talk with their doctor about when to start getting mammograms and how often. And at any age, if you find a breast lump, ask your doctor about it.
Cervical cancer screening. These include a Pap test to look for abnormal cells in the cervix or an HPV test to see if you have the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is very common, but some strains of it raise the risk of cervical cancer. How often you should get these tests depends in part on your age and on whether your test results were normal last time. Check with your doctor.
Colorectal cancer screening. Start screening between ages 45 and 50, or younger if you’re at high risk -- talk to your doctor. Doctors may use colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to look inside your colon or rectum for cancers or for polyps that could become cancer. There are also tests such as a guaiac-based fecal occult blood test, a fecal immunochemical test, or a stool DNA test to check for blood in your bowel movements, which could be a sign that you have polyps.
Endometrial cancer screening. The endometrium is the lining of the uterus. Women who are at high risk for this type of cancer may want to consider getting an endometrial biopsy once a year to check for this risk. And any woman should tell their doctor if they have unexpected vaginal bleeding or spotting after menopause.
Lung cancer screening (for smokers). If you smoke now or have a history of heavy smoking, you may need a yearly lung cancer screening. This is a low-dose computed tomography (CT), which scans the lungs to look for signs of disease. Smoking is the top cause of lung cancer. But not everyone who gets lung cancer is a smoker. This screening isn’t recommended for other people.
Prostate cancer screening. Experts recommend that men talk with their doctor about whether this screening would be helpful. Have that talk at age 45 if you’re African American or if your dad or brother had prostate cancer before age 65. Otherwise, start the discussion at age 50. If you do get this screening, it would involve getting a PSA test (a blood test), with or without a rectal exam.
Ask About Vaccines
The HPV vaccine can be given to children as young as 9 years old and is recommended for everyone under age 26. The vaccine protects against the strains of human papillomavirus, the sexually transmitted infection responsible for cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penis, and anal cancers.
There’s also the hepatitis B (HBV) vaccine. Hepatitis B is a liver disease that makes you more likely to get liver cancer. The vaccine can help prevent the infection.
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, which more people in the U.S. die of than any other cancer. Quitting, and avoiding secondhand smoke, lower your risk.
Smoking is also a risk factor for several other types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth and throat, stomach, colon, liver, and bladder. Ask your doctor for advice on how to kick the habit. And avoid other people’s smoke.
Eat More Plants
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans are just some of the plant foods to enjoy. They have antioxidants, which help guard against tissue damage that raises cancer risk. Go for at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruit every day. Choose a variety of them, as there are many different types of antioxidants.
Plus, you’ll get plenty of fiber from plant foods. That might help lower the risk of colon cancer. And it’s filling, which may help if you’re trying to eat healthy while losing some extra weight.
Remember: It’s not about trying to keep up with the latest “superfood” or making a huge change overnight that you can’t keep up. Give yourself credit for even small shifts.
Work on a Healthy Weight
No question: Thin people can, and do, get cancer. But the more overweight you are, the greater your risk of having breast, endometrial (uterine), and colorectal cancers. Ask your doctor whether your body mass index (BMI) puts you at risk and what changes -- in what you eat and how much you exercise -- would help.
Step Up Activity
There is strong research showing that people who report regular exercise are less likely than inactive people to get certain cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. That includes bladder cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, and stomach cancer.
Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity that raises your heart rate (like brisk walking) per week. That works out to 30 minutes, 5 days a week. Or you can do 75-100 minutes per week of harder activity, like running. It’s also good to do strength training twice a week and exercises to help your balance.
That’s a lot, if you’re not active now. Work your way up to that slowly. And if you have a health condition, check with your doctor to see what types of activities are best for you.
Limit or Avoid Alcohol
Drinking beer, wine, or spirits is linked to higher rates of cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box, esophagus, colon and rectum, and liver. In women, alcohol is tied to a higher risk of breast cancer. If you drink, keep it to no more than one drink a day for women or two for men.
More than 3 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. When you spend time outside, stick to hours when the sun isn’t at its peak. Wear sunscreen every day. Also, wear sunglasses, lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants, and a hat. Find a spot in the shade. And don’t use tanning beds. They raise your risk.
If You’re at High Risk
If you’re concerned that you’re at risk for cancer, talk to your doctor. They may recommend further testing, including genetic screening. Depending on your risk factors, there may be specific changes you can make. For instance, you might start screenings earlier or get checked more often. There may be medicines or surgery that can reduce your risk. You may hear these called “chemoprevention” and “preventive surgery.”
Chemoprevention means taking medications to stop cancer from developing. Your doctor may recommend taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or other medications if you have a family history of cancer, are at high risk, or have had it before and want to prevent recurrence. Other examples include tamoxifen, which may help if you’re at high risk for breast cancer.
Preventive surgery removes tissue that’s likely to become cancerous. These surgeries are most common among women at high risk of being diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancers. They can involve removing one or both breasts (called prophylactic mastectomy) or the ovaries (called prophylactic oophorectomy). “High risk” includes having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer or the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.