Like any illness or disease, cancer can occur without warning. Many factors that increase your cancer risk are beyond your control, such as your family history and your genes. Others, such as whether you smoke or get regular cancer screenings, are within your control.
Changing certain habits can give you a powerful tool to help prevent cancer. It all starts with your lifestyle.
Quit Smoking and Using Tobacco
Quitting smoking has a direct and strong positive effect on your risk for cancer. Tobacco contains harmful chemicals that damage your cells and cause cancer growth. Harming your lungs is not the only concern. Smoking and tobacco use cause many types of cancer, such as:
- Certain leukemias
Tobacco leaves and the chemicals added to them are not safe. Smoking tobacco in cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, or chewing tobacco can all give you cancer.
If you smoke, talk with your health care provider today about ways to quit smoking and all tobacco use.
Protect Yourself from UV Rays
The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight can cause changes to your skin. The sun's rays (UVA and UVB) damage skin cells. These harmful rays are also found in tanning beds and sunlamps. Sunburns and many years of sun exposure can lead to skin cancer.
It is unclear whether avoiding the sun or using sunscreen can prevent all skin cancers. Still, you are better off protecting yourself from UV rays:
- Stay in the shade.
- Cover up with protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses.
- Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Use SPF 30 or higher and reapply every 2 hours if you will be swimming, sweating, or outside in direct sun for a long time.
- Avoid tanning beds and sun lamps.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Carrying a lot of extra weight creates changes in your hormones. These changes can trigger cancer growth. Being overweight or having obesity puts you at higher risk for:
- Breast cancer (after menopause)
- Brain cancer
- Colon cancer
- Endometrial cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Liver cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Gallbladder cancer
Your risk is higher if your body mass index (BMI) is high enough to be considered obese. You can use an online tool to calculate your BMI at www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/index.html. You can also measure your waist to see where you stand. In general, a woman with a waist over 35 inches (89 centimeters) or a man with a waist over 40 inches (102 centimeters) is at increased risk for health problems from obesity.
Exercise regularly and eat healthy foods to keep your weight in check. Ask your provider for advice on how to lose weight safely.
Get Regular Exercise
Exercise is healthy for all, for many reasons. Studies have shown that people who exercise seem to have a lower risk for certain cancers. Exercise can help you keep your weight down. Staying active may help protect you against colon, breast, lung, and endometrial cancers.
According to national guidelines, you should exercise for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week for health benefits. That is 30 minutes at least 5 days per week. Doing more is even better for your health.
Eat Healthy Foods
Good food choices can build up your immune system and may help protect you from cancer. Take these steps:
- Eat more plant-based foods like fruits, beans, legumes, and green vegetables
- Drink water and low-sugar drinks
- Avoid processed foods from boxes and cans
- Avoid processed meats like hotdogs, bacon, and deli meats
- Choose lean proteins such as fish and chicken; limit red meat
- Eat whole grain cereals, pasta, crackers, and breads
- Limit high-calorie fattening foods, such as French fries, doughnuts, and fast foods
- Limit candy, baked goods, and other sweets
- Consume smaller portions of foods and drinks
- Prepare most of your own foods at home, rather than buying pre-made or eating out
- Prepare foods by baking rather than broiling or grilling; avoid heavy sauces and creams
Stay informed. The chemicals and added sweeteners in certain foods are being looked at for their possible links to cancer.
When you drink alcohol, your body has to break it down. During this process, a chemical byproduct is left in the body that can damage cells. Too much alcohol may also get in the way of healthy nutrients your body needs.
Drinking too much alcohol is linked to the following cancers:
- Oral cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Liver cancer
Limit your alcohol to at most 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. Better yet, don't drink alcohol at all
Have Regular Check-ups
Your provider can help you assess your risk for cancer and steps you can take. Visit your provider for a physical exam. That way you stay on top of what cancer screenings you should have. Screening can help to detect cancer early and improve your chance of recovery.
Some infections can also cause cancer. Talk with your provider about whether you should have these vaccinations:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). The virus increases the risk for cancers of the cervix, penis, vagina, vulvar, anus, and throat.
- Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B infection increases the risk for liver cancer.
When to Call the Doctor
Contact your provider if:
- You have questions or concerns about your cancer risk and what you can do
- You are due for a cancer screening test
Lifestyle modification - cancer
Basen-Engquist K, Brown P, Coletta AM, Savage M, Maresso KC, Hawk E. Lifestyle and cancer prevention. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 22.
Moore SC, Lee IM, Weiderpass E, et al. Association of leisure-time physical activity with risk of 26 types of cancer in 1.44 million adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(6):816-825. PMID: 27183032 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27183032/.
National Cancer Institute website. Alcohol and cancer risk. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet. Updated July 14, 2021. Accessed October 20, 2022.
National Cancer Institute website. Harms of cigarette smoking and health benefits of quitting. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/cessation-fact-sheet. Updated December 19, 2017. Accessed October 20, 2022.
National Cancer Institute website. Obesity and cancer. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet. Updated April 5, 2022. Accessed October 20, 2022.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018. health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf. Accessed October 20, 2022.
Review Date 8/15/2022
Updated by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.