The dreaded C-word is a diagnosis no one ever wants to hear. But with a little knowledge and wise lifestyle choices, you may never have to hear it for yourself.
Cancer starts when abnormal cells in one part of the body grow out of control, form malignant tumors and invade healthy tissues and organs. In women, cancer is most likely to occur in the lungs, breasts, colon and rectum, skin, ovaries, uterus, cervix, vulva and vagina.
Although cancer risk can be inherited in a person’s genes, it can also be determined by exposure to harmful chemicals or radiation, lifestyle choices or a combination of multiple factors.
But there’s good news: More than a third of the most common cancers in the United States could be prevented by simply eating a healthy diet, doing regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight, according to studies by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Here’s a guide to some simple things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer:
Do not smoke.
Using any kind of tobacco increases your cancer risk. Smoking has been linked to cancer of the lung, bladder, cervix and kidney, and accounts for 30 percent of cancer deaths in the United States. Chewing tobacco has been linked to cancer of the mouth and pancreas.
Avoiding tobacco — or deciding to stop using it — is one of the best health decisions you can make, and it’s an important part of cancer prevention. In fact, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that smokers who just cut back from 20 to less than 10 cigarettes per day reduce their lung cancer risk by 27 percent. If you need help quitting, ask your health care provider about products and strategies that can help.
Eat a healthy diet.
Eating a healthy diet won’t necessarily prevent cancer, but it can help reduce your risk. Consider these guidelines from the AICR:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Basing your diet on these plant foods not only provides a necessary supply of nutrients and fiber, but also reduces your risk of a wide range of cancers. When preparing a meal, fill at least two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.
- Eat foods with high fiber content. Fiber-rich foods include whole-grain bread and pasta, oats, vegetables and fruits. Among other benefits, fiber helps to speed up the amount of time it takes food to move through the digestive system.
- Limit your fat intake, especially saturated fat, trans fat and fat from animal sources. High-fat diets tend to be higher in calories and might increase your risk of becoming overweight or obese, which can increase your cancer risk.
- To reduce your cancer risk, eat no more than 18 oz. per week of red meats, such as beef, pork and lamb, and avoid such processed meats as ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and sausages. Evidence suggests that red meats and processed meats contain substances, including heme iron and carcinogens, linked to colorectal cancer.
Limit alcohol consumption.
The risk of various types of cancer — including cancer of the breast, colon, lung, esophagus, kidney and liver — increases with the amount of alcohol you drink and the length of time you’ve been drinking regularly. If you do drink alcohol, limit your consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
Exercise daily and maintain a healthy weight.
Maintaining a healthy weight may lower the risk of various types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, prostate, lung, colon and kidney, according to the AICR. Even physical activity alone helps lower the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.
For optimal benefits, strive to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic physical activity. As a general goal, include at least 30 minutes of physical activity in your daily routine.
Limit sun exposure and use sunscreen.
Skin cancer is one of the most common and preventable kinds of cancer. To reduce your skin cancer risk, follow these guidelines:
- Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- When outdoors, stay in the shade as much as possible. Wear sunglasses, a broad-rimmed hat and tightly woven, loose-fitting clothes that cover as much as possible.
- Use generous amounts of a broadband (UVA and UVB protection) sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, and reapply often.
- Avoid tanning beds; they are just as damaging as natural sunlight.
Practice safe sex.
Limit your number of sexual partners, and use a condom when you have sex. The more sexual partners you have in your lifetime, the more likely you are to contract a sexually transmitted infection, such as HIV or Human Pappillomavirus (HPV). People who have HIV or AIDS have a higher risk of cancer of the anus, liver and lung. HPV is most often associated with cervical cancer, but it might also increase the risk of cancer of the anus, penis, throat, vulva and vagina.
Know the warning signs.
Most types of cancer have early warning signs that something could be wrong. If you notice any of these signs, contact your health care provider right away:
- A change in bowel or bladder habits
- A sore throat that does not heal
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Thickening or a lump in the breast or other parts of the body
- Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
- A change in a wart or a mole
- A nagging cough or hoarseness
Have recommended exams and tests.
Regular self-exams and screenings for various types of cancers can increase your chances of discovering cancer early, when treatment is most likely to be successful. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all women have the following routine screening tests. Based on your risk factors, your doctor may recommend additional tests or exams.
- Breast cancer screenings: All women should conduct a breast self-exam once a month to look for unusual changes or lumps that could signal breast cancer. Women age 40 and older should have a mammogram every year. Talk with your health care provider about whether to continue annual mammograms if you are older than 75.
- Cervical cancer screenings: All women should conduct a vulvar self-exam once a month. Women ages 21 to 29 should have both Pap and HPV tests every three years to screen for cervical cancer. Women age 30 and older should have them every five years. Talk with your health care provider about whether to continue these tests if you are older than 65 and have no history of dysplasia or cancer.
- Colon and rectal cancer screenings: To screen for colon and rectal cancer, women age 50 and older should have a fecal occult blood test every year; a flexible sigmoidoscopy, a double contrast barium enema test and a computed tomography every five years; and a colonoscopy every 10 years.
- Skin cancer screenings: All women should check their skin regularly to look for unusual changes. Check moles for changes in shape, color or size, and have your health care provider examine your moles at checkups.