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For Your Health: Many unaware of key steps to lower cancer risk

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For Your Health Graphic 2020

Dr. Graham Colditz HeadshotFor a long time, cancer has topped the list of many people’s health fears, surpassing stroke, heart disease and other conditions. While cancer is a frightening disease, knowing you can reduce your risk is welcome news.

Decades of research show that half or more of cancers could be avoided with a healthy lifestyle and regular screening. This isn’t to say that each of us has complete control over whether we get cancer or not. But we do know that some relatively simple steps can go a long way toward lowering the chances of developing many types of cancer.

Although many people know this generally, they’re often less clear on exactly what steps they can take to lower their risk. A 2017 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), for example, found that while a large majority of the public knows that smoking and sun exposure increase cancer risk, only half or less know that key behaviors such as being overweight, being physical inactive, drinking alcohol and eating processed meat raise risk.

Additionally, many of the survey respondents believe that such things as genetically modified foods (GMOs), artificial sweeteners, hormones in beef, and food additives increase cancer risk when, to date, there is little or no evidence of this.

“Part of the confusion may be related to the fact that people get bombarded with a lot of information, from the media and other sources,” says Dr. Ed Giovannucci, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a panel member on a recent AICR report on nutrition, physical activity and cancer. “So, it becomes hard to distinguish what are important causes of cancer supported by evidence and what are only suspected causes, with little supporting evidence.”

Perhaps most surprisingly is that only about half of the survey respondents correctly identified being overweight as something that increases cancer risk. Yet, research shows that it causes about 130,000 cancer cases a year in the U.S., and increases the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer. The only lifestyle factor with a greater impact on cancer rates is smoking.

To help cut through some of this confusion, Siteman Cancer Center has compiled eight key steps that can help prevent cancer. They are built on solid scientific evidence and are designed to be things that most people can do, even if some of the steps might be easier than others.

They are to:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight.
  2. Exercise regularly.
  3. Not smoke.
  4. Eat a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in red and processed meat.
  5. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all.
  6. Protect yourself from the sun and avoid tanning beds.
  7. Protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections, and get kids vaccinated against HPV.
  8. Get recommended cancer screening tests.

Compared to many of the wild health headlines popping up on news feeds, these eight ways can feel pretty ordinary. But while they may lack excitement, they can have really important benefits when it comes to preventing cancer.

It’s your health. Take control.

The full 8IGHT WAYS series about reducing cancer risk is available at


Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.