8 Ways to Lower Your Cancer Risk

These lifestyle choices may make cancer less likely.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on February 16, 2012
7 min read

You’ve seen the hype-filled headlines: “The Cancer Prevention Diet!” “Slash Your Risk of Cancer in Half in Just Minutes a Day!” Is it true that you can cut your cancer risk with simple choices you make every day?

Well, there’s nothing magic about cancer prevention, no “killer app” that can instantly keep you healthy. Genetics play a big role in cancer, so even if you try to live a perfectly healthy life, it’s possible that you may develop cancer.

But experts estimate that at least a third of all adult cancer cases are linked to lifestyle, which is within your control.

With every healthy choice you make -- and every unhealthy habit you drop -- you’re chipping away at your cancer risk. Here are eight of the healthiest habits you can develop to help prevent cancer (plus a ninth one that experts are still cautious about).

Lung cancer kills more women and men in the U.S. than any other cancer -- 28% of all cancer deaths, or about 160,000 people every year. The vast majority of those deaths are due to smoking.

And that’s just lung cancer. Smoking has also been linked to more than a dozen other cancers and accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths overall.

That's why many doctors will tell you that the biggest anti-cancer step you can take is to stop smoking, or never start. But even if you’re having trouble quitting entirely, you can reduce your cancer risk significantly by just cutting back.

A study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 found that smokers who cut back from about 20 cigarettes per day to less than 10 per day reduced their lung cancer risk by 27%. It’s a good first step, but don't stop there; quit completely for your health's sake.

Even if you’re a nonsmoker, don’t assume smoke isn’t permeating your life. About 3,000 cases of lung cancer each year occur as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke, and there are strong indicators that other cancers may be linked to secondhand smoke as well.

“If you’re in a closed bar or nightclub and 100 people in there are smoking, you might as well be,” says Mack Ruffin IV, MD, MPH, a professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan and an expert in preventive oncology. “If you leave a bar and your clothes are smelling of tobacco, you’ve inhaled a lot of cigarette smoke.”

So think twice before spending regular nights out in smoke-filled clubs, or letting your child ride home regularly with someone who smokes in the car.

Many people probably know that carrying too much weight around isn’t good for your heart, but did you know that it’s a major risk factor for cancer as well? Obesity is the culprit behind some 14% of cancer deaths, and more than 3% of new cancer cases, every year.

“Our No. 1 recommendation for cancer risk reduction is to stay as lean as possible within a healthy weight range. This may be one of the most important ways to prevent cancer,” says Alice Bender, MS, RD, manager of nutrition communications at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

In November 2007, the AICR put out an expert report summarizing how food, nutrition, and physical activity affect cancer and cancer prevention. Being overweight, according to the AICR report, is linked to a wide variety of cancers, including esophageal, pancreatic, gall bladder, breast, endometrial, and kidney cancers.

All forms of physical activity help to prevent many forms of cancer, according to the AICR Expert Report. You may not get six-pack abs with 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, but a number of studies have found evidence that just this much physical activity can cut your risk of many common cancers by 30% to 50%.

“It doesn’t matter that much what kind of exercise you do, or when -- just do it,” Ruffin says. “Let’s correlate it to smoking. If you can cut your weight down to a healthy range, increase your physical activity, and increase your fruit and vegetable intake. That’s the equivalent to stopping smoking if you were a smoker. People don’t understand how important these factors are, because they creep up over your life span.”

There are a number of different foods that may help to prevent certain types of cancer. “For example, tomatoes, watermelon, and other foods containing lycopene have evidence showing that they probably reduce the risk of prostate cancer,” Bender says.

But if you’re aiming to slice your risk of many cancers across the board, load your plate with plants, particularly non-starchy vegetables and fruits. That’s why the AICR report’s No. 4 recommendation is to eat mostly foods that come from plants -- at least 14 ounces every day. The Mediterranean diet, St. Tropez diet, and the green diet all are based on a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Diets that tend to prevent cancer are rich in plant-based foods.

AICR’s “new American plate” plan offers an easy cheat sheet on eating to prevent cancer. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains should cover two-thirds of your plate; the other one-third should contain lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy.

When it comes to health, alcohol wields a double-edged sword. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that light alcohol consumption, especially red wine,may be beneficial for heart health.

But on the other hand, it appears that any alcohol consumption can raise your risk of cancer.

“For cancer, there is no safe level of alcohol,” Bender says. “It’s a dose response: The more you drink, the greater the risk, especially for certain cancers like those of the mouth, throat, and esophagus.” And if you smoke, too, the combined effects of drinking and smoking shoot your risk for these up even higher.

What to do? Both the AICR expert report and the American Cancer Society recommend that women limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day, and men no more than two.

“People always want to know if stress can raise your cancer risk,” Ruffin says. “There’s no convincing evidence that, by itself, stress is an independent risk factor for cancer. But what it cando is lead people to engage in unhealthy behavior in an effort to cope with stress. If you’re overeating, drinking, or smoking to self-medicate your stress away, those behaviors all raise your cancer risk.”

So instead, Ruffin recommends finding healthy ways of coping with stress, like exercise (which helps to reducecancer risk), meditation, and journaling.

Many screening tests for various cancers, like mammograms and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, don’t actually prevent cancer -- they just catch it at a very early stage, when it may be more treatable.

But other tests, like Pap tests and colonoscopies, can help detect precancerous changes that, if left untreated, can turn into cervical cancer or colon cancer.

There are many confusing messages about what screening tests different people should use, and when. Instead of trying to figure it out on your own, Ruffin says, talk to your doctor about your individual situation.

Take screening mammograms, for instance. The question isn’t “Should women under 50 get mammograms?” but “Should I,given my own personal situation and family health history, start mammograms before 50?”

“And don’t think one conversation is enough,” Ruffin says. “Things about your health situation change, and so does our knowledge about cancer and screening. Ask your doctor about it this year, and next year, and the year after that.”

Ruffin advises all of his patients to learn their family health histories in detail. “Family history is where we can really create a personalized strategy for cutting cancer risk and catching it early,” he says. “But it’s a piece I don’t think people bring up nearly often enough.”

So next time you have a family reunion, make it a project to gather information on who’s had what health condition and when. “Gather on Skype or Facebook or face to face and talk about this,” Ruffin says.

The Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative lets you create a personalized diagram that you can download to keep on your own computer, or copy and share with other family members to keep the info flowing.

Should you take aspirin to prevent cancer? The jury’s still out, but at least some evidence points that way. A large study published in 2010 found that daily use of low-dose aspirin can cut the risk of death due to certain cancers (primarily lung, colorectal, and esophageal cancer) by as much as 21%.

But regular aspirin use can come with side effects, especially stomach bleeding and irritation. Most experts say it’s way too soon to recommend a cancer-fighting aspirin a day.

“We’d all like preventing cancer to be as easy as taking a little pill, but the fact is that you’ll reduce your cancer risk much more by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and eating fruits and vegetables than you will by taking aspirin,” Ruffin says.

Talk to your doctor before you start taking aspirin on a regular basis for any reason.