The good news: many of them are under your control.
As the second leading cause of death in the United States, the threat of cancer can be scary. But the good news is that some of the most common cancer risk factors are within your control. By making a few lifestyle changes, you can reduce your odds of developing cancer, not to mention a host of other health conditions. Even for causes of cancer that are beyond your control—like inheriting genetic mutations—you can use that information to take the best steps to protect your health.
“The first five risk factors on this list should be: smoking, smoking, smoking, smoking, and smoking,” says David N. Oubre, MD, an oncologist and the founder of the Pontchartrain Cancer Center, which has two offices in Louisiana. That’s how dangerous your cigarette habit can be.
The more often you smoke and the longer you smoke, the riskier it becomes. Smoking increases your risk for not only lung cancer, but also cancer in areas around your mouth, like your throat and esophagus. Your body’s digestive organs, including the liver, bladder, pancreas, kidney, stomach, and colon, can also take a hit.
The National Cancer Institute reports that there are 250 harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke and at least 69 of themcan cause cancer. Think: arsenic and formaldehyde. And your cigarette habit doesn’t only affect you. Secondhand smoke can also cause lung cancer in nonsmokers.
So how can you quit this unhealthy habit for good? “It really starts with a decision that, not only am I going to quit, but I’m really going to quit—despite the cravings. Because they will get cravings,” says Dr. Oubre.
While there isn’t one method that works for everyone, there are many effective ways to quit smoking. You just have to find one that works best for you and your lifestyle. If nicotine gums and lozenges don’t work, consider Chantix, a nicotine-free pill that helps reduce cravings.
It’s completely fine to enjoy a glass of wine or beer every now and then, but going overboard can increase your health risks.
“If you’re starting to drink wine, maybe you’re helping your heart, but once you go past two drinks a day for a man and one drink a day for a woman, mortality climbs,” Dr. Oubre explains.
However, it’s also worth noting that a 2018 study from Lancet shows that the safest level of drinking is none. That’s right—no alcoholic beverages at all. Why? Because drinking alcohol contributes to causes that can take a toll on your overall health.
Drinking too much alcohol (of any kind) raises your risk for cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast. In fact, drinking and smoking at the same time increases your risk even more, according to the American Cancer Society. Drinking alcohol can help tobacco chemicals get inside the cells of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. Alcohol also makes it harder for cells to repair damage from tobacco.
Research has found that eating red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meat (sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts) increases the risk for colorectal cancer. While that doesn’t mean that you should completely eliminate hamburger, hot dogs, and pulled pork sandwiches from your diet, you should definitely limit your intake of these types of dishes.
Studies have also found that high-glycemic foods and beverages, such as juice, pizza, and soda, have been associated with a higher risk for prostate cancer. But eating nutritious foods like legumes (beans, peas, lentils) has been linked with a lower risk for prostate and colorectal cancer.
Being sedentary is one of the worst things you can do for your health. One study found that people who sat for the longest periods each day were at an increased risk for colon, endometrial, and lung cancer, compared with those who sat for the least amount of time per day.
To help you stay more mobile, consider replacing your desk with a standing one. At the very least, be sure to walk around and stretch as frequently as you can throughout the day. And don’t forget to exercise regularly, ideally for at least 30 minutes per day. High levels of physical activity have been associated with a decreased risk for colon, breast, and endometrial cancer. Exercise can also help reduce inflammation, boost your immune system, and help improve digestion.
“Exercise releases some molecules that could have a anti-cancer and anti-inflammation effect,” says Ali Mahdavi, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and the Medical Director, Specialty Care Ascension Medical Group, OB/GYN Clinic at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Packing on too many pounds increases your risk for several cancers, including breast, ovarian, colon, thyroid, gallbladder, and pancreatic. Abdominal fat, aka belly fat, is the riskiest kind of excess weight to carry. By sticking to a healthy diet and regular exercise routine, you can better manage your weight and keep it at a healthy range
The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause many types of cancer, such as cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (the middle part of the throat), vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that’s spread through skin-to-skin contact. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to get vaccinated, which is recommended at age 11 or 12 (or women up to 26 years old and men up to 21 years old who were not adequately vaccinated previously).
Using a condom and limiting your number of sexual partners can also help lower your risk of HPV. Visit your gynecologist routinely and follow their recommendations for getting a regular Pap and/or HPV testing so you can catch any precancerous cervical changes early.
So you can’t turn back the clock, but the older you get, the more important it is to see your primary care doctor for worrisome symptoms and regular physicals. That’s because various cancers are more likely to strike when you’re older. Although cancer can occur at any age and some cancers are more common in young people (like bone cancer, leukemia, and neuroblastoma), the median age for a cancer diagnosisis 66.
“With advanced age, there is an increased risk of gene mutations because of environmental factors (like exposure to certain chemicals or sunlight),” says Dr. Mahdavi. “The DNA is capable of repairing some of these alterations. And even if there are a few alterations that can’t be repaired, it would not really make a significant difference in cell function,” Dr. Mahdavi adds. But as you age, Dr. Mahdavi says these alterations in the DNA accumulates and reach a critical point. “The cell can’t function in a normal fashion and cancer forms,” he explains.
Unlike genetic mutations that you acquire as you age, inherited genetic mutations are ones that you’re born with and can’t change. While you have no control over the genetic mutations you inherit, it’s your job to understand and keep track of your family history of disease. If cancer is prevalent in your family (especially if it affects first-degree relatives—a parent, sibling, child—or relatives at young ages), talk to a genetic counselor or your doctor to see if genetic testing might be right for you.
Knowing your genetic makeup gives you options that your ancestors didn’t have and can help you make the most informed decisions about your health. For instance, someone with Lynch syndrome (who has a higher risk for colon and endometrial cancers, among others) may choose to start getting colonoscopy screenings at a younger age. Moreover, women with a BRCA1 or 2 genetic mutation may opt to have her breasts and/or ovaries removed, due to an increased risk of cancer in those areas of the body.