7 strategies to prevent cancer

Even if you have a family history of cancer, you’re not powerless against the disease. Roughly 40% of cancers are preventable through lifestyle changes, says Dr. JoAnn Manson, the Michael and Lee Bell Professor of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School.

“Heredity is usually not destiny,” she says.

In fact, there are several approaches that can decrease your cancer risk over the course of your lifetime. Some of them are easy, such as getting recommended health screenings. Others may be a little more challenging—for example, maintaining a healthy body weight, squeezing in regular workouts, or changing your diet. But even making small inroads on the strategies below can help protect your health over the long term.

1. Improve your diet

Reduce your risk for a variety of cancers by eating a diet that is largely plant-based, low in red and processed meats, and low in added sugars, says Dr. Manson. Two examples are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, she says. Both emphasize healthy unsaturated fats, whole grains, fruits and veggies, and nuts and beans, and both are low in processed foods.

2. Watch what you drink

“Another aspect of diet that people often don’t pay much attention to is minimizing alcohol intake,” says Dr. Manson. Research has linked alcohol consumption to numerous cancers—particularly in heavy users. But even those who have less than a drink or two daily aren’t in the clear.

“Recent reports suggest that even modest or moderate alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including esophageal cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Manson. If you enjoy a daily drink, it may be tough to give up. But cutting back on your intake is definitely something to consider.

“A drink once or twice a month isn’t likely to affect your cancer risk, but more than a couple of drinks per week could,” says Dr. Manson.

Is there an invisible cancer risk in your home?A lung cancer threat may be lurking in your home. Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that enters homes from the soil and rocks beneath. Chronic radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, next to cigarette smoking. High radon levels (defined as 4 picocuries per liter or higher) are found in one in every 15 homes, according to the American Cancer Society. You can buy a simple test kit at your local hardware store that can tell you if your home is one of them. If testing reveals elevated radon levels, consult an expert who can help you fix the problem by sealing cracks that allow radon to enter or improve ventilation to keeps gas levels low.

3. Get recommended cancer screenings

While some tests, such as mammograms, are designed to find cancers early when they are most treatable, some screening tests can actually prevent cancer altogether. For example, a colonoscopy can find precancerous polyps and remove them before they do any harm. The same is true of the Pap and HPV (human papillomavirus) tests, which can detect abnormalities before they become cancers in the cervix and vagina.

Also consider getting a one-time hepatitis C screening, which the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends for all adults ages 18 to 79. Untreated, this viral infection can lead to liver disease and liver cancer. A 2012 review in Gastroenterology noted that successful treatment of hepatitis C can reduce your risk of liver cancer by as much as 75%.

4. Maintain a healthy body weight

Obesity is linked to a dozen or more malignancies, from postmenopausal breast cancer to ovarian, endometrial, and kidney cancer. Obesity increases risk through several pathways. It’s associated with insulin resistance, a condition where your cells don’t respond well to insulin (the hormone that helps your body turn glucose into energy). This malfunction causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to rise, which can promote tumor growth. Obesity also causes chronic inflammation in the body and raises the circulating levels of estrogen and other sex hormones; these changes make certain cancers more likely to occur.

5. Exercise regularly

Regular physical activity can reduce cancer risk through several mechanisms, according to Dr. Manson. First, it helps with weight control. Exercise can also moderate levels of sex hormones and inflammation, which may drive certain malignancies. Finally, physical activity is important for stress management. Hormones produced by the body’s stress response may increase your vulnerability to cancer. Aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

Get vaccinated against cancerA few vaccines can help protect you from cancer. One is the shot for hepatitis B, a viral liver infection that can cause liver disease and liver cancer. Some people who contract hepatitis B will get sick for a few weeks and then recover. But for others, the infection is persistent, creating long-term health risks. Health care workers are at particular risk of infection.If you have teens or young adults in your life, they should also consider the HPV vaccine, which protects against several cancers caused by the human papillomavirus, including cervical, vaginal, anal, penile, and vulvar cancers, as well as others that affect the head and neck.

6. Get adequate sleep

Insufficient or poor-quality sleep is associated with obesity and diabetes. Both conditions, in turn, raise your risk for cancer. In addition to this indirect link, some research has found that poor sleep may independently boost cancer risk, says Dr. Manson. Strive for seven or eight hours of good-quality sleep a night. Getting regular exercise can help you sleep more soundly.

7. Avoid environmental hazards

When possible, cut down on your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Some that can raise your cancer risk may be lurking in plastics and in beauty products. Several chemicals in plastics, including bisphenol A and phthalates, are worrisome because there is some evidence that long-term exposure is harmful. Decrease risk by avoiding heating foods in plastic containers in the microwave and avoiding food that is packaged in plastic if another option is available.

Shop carefully for beauty treatments by reading labels to avoid problematic chemicals. Organizations such as the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) offer guidance on which chemicals to avoid. Also, pare down the number of products you use daily to reduce unneeded exposure.

However, keep in mind that while environmental risks may add up over time, the actual cancer risk from these items is minimal. “Don’t become preoccupied over what is likely a very small risk compared with the risk of having a really unhealthy diet and being sedentary,” says Dr. Manson.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 1 Timothy 6:11 NIV

For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:4 NIV

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV

I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I have set my heart on your laws. Psalm 119:30 NIV

“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. Mark 10:52 NIV

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35 NIV

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 NIV

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. Romans 10:10 NIV

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. Hebrews 11:11 NIV

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:26-27 NIV

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:17 NIV

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:16 NIV

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