Although it may seem like cancer comes out of the blue, it rarely actually does. The truth is, cancer usually takes years to develop. Sadly, you can’t prevent every instance of cancer. Genetics plays a big role. Five to 10 percent of all cancers are the result of bum genes. And as much as you’d like to, you can’t stop the aging process. Nearly 9 out of 10 cancers are diagnosed in people ages 50 and older.
However, there are plenty of things you can do to raise your odds of dodging certain cancers. Here are the five most important steps you should take.
1. Stop smoking
There are 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, about 70 of which can cause cancer. Smoking damages nearly every organ in the body and accounts for about one out of three cancer deaths in this country. Yes, it’s hard to quit. But with a little help, you can do it. Some tips:
- Reach out for help. The National Cancer Institute has counselors available by phone to help. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for this free service. Or visit Smokefree.gov.
- Try a local quit program. Look for one housed in a hospital, community center, house of worship, etc. Nicotine Anonymous also offers free group meetings for anyone trying to quit.
- Use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Gum, skin patches and lozenges that supply controlled amounts of nicotine that taper off over time can help ease withdrawal symptoms. Try this with a quit line and you may be able to get the NRT for free.
Using both counseling and medication together is more effective than using either one alone.
2. Maintain a healthy body mass index
Being overweight or obese accounts for 20 percent of all cancer deaths among women and 14 percent among men. When you’re overweight you're providing a host environment for cancer progression. That's lots of insulin, lots of glucose, and lots of inflammation—all of which collude to speed up cancer-cell growth once a malignancy occurs. Being overweight raises your risk of dozens of different cancers, including colorectal, breast, uterine, kidney, pancreatic, prostate, and more.
Your first goal should be to lose 5 to 10 percent of your body weight, which has been shown to be beneficial. Once you reach that goal, go for another 5 to 10 percent until you reach a healthy BMI.
3. Pack in the produce
Every day, your body is attacked by an onslaught of harmful molecules called free radicals. These are oxygen molecules that have lost an electron. In their search for a replacement, they damage healthy cells, possibly kicking off the cancer process. Many phytonutrients—naturally occurring substances found only in plant foods—have antioxidant activities. That means they can either stop the formation of free radicals or disable them before they do harm.
All produce is good, but berries are particularly chock-full of antioxidants.
4. Eat a high-fiber diet
Fiber works against cancer in several ways. It soaks up water as it moves through the digestive tract, which causes the intestine to move things along more quickly. That means there’s less time for any harmful substances to damage the cells lining the intestine. Fiber also helps trap cancer-causing substances in the colon and out the digestive tract.
Adults need at least 25 grams (women) and 35 grams (men) of fiber a day. After the age of 50, the recommended intake drops to 21 grams (women) and 30 grams (men) of fiber a day. That includes both soluble and insoluble fiber, including oats, barley, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, whole-wheat foods, seeds, nuts, legumes and many other fruits and vegetables.
5. Get moving
Exercise helps you lose excess weight and maintain a healthy body weight. But the cancer-preventing benefits of physical activity go well beyond that. Physical activity can lower your levels of insulin and estrogen, both of which have been linked to certain cancers. Exercise is a powerful anti-inflammatory, it helps your immune system function better, and it helps speed food quicker through the gut, decreasing exposure to possible carcinogens.
The more you do, the greater the protection. Aim for at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.
Hopefully one day soon, cancer will be a thing of the past.