Prevention

12 Preventable Cancers

Lifestyle can have a huge influence on the risk of cancer overall.  Not all cancers, though, have known lifestyle components.  Outlined below are twelve of the more common cancers with lifestyle factors linked to their risk.  Some, like colon cancer, have a number of lifestyle factors, while others, like bladder cancer, have few.

The tables list healthy behaviors that have been found through high quality research studies to be definitely or probably linked to each cancer.  Arrows show, in general, how much a behavior may be able to lower risk.

Bladder cancer

Approximately 77,000 new cases of bladder cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States.  While only a few lifestyle factors are linked to bladder cancer, they can have a large impact on risk.  Not smoking can greatly lower risk, as can avoiding water with a high arsenic content.  High arsenic levels are most common in well water, and all households with well water should have their drinking water tested.  For people who work with aromatic amines and other chemicals common in rubber and aluminum production, the best thing they can do is wear proper protective equipment in the workplace and be familiar with the chemicals they work with.

Ways to lower bladder cancer risk       Benefit
Not smoking ↓↓↓
Drinking tested water with safe arsenic levels ↓↓
(In workers) Avoiding unprotected exposure to aromatic amines and other chemicals common in rubber/aluminum production ↓↓↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the US. Around 245,000 American women are diagnosed with the disease each year, and it is a leading killer of women in midlife (ages 30 – 55).  Though relatively few lifestyle factors have been linked to the disease, lifestyle does have a very important impact on the risk of breast cancer.  This is especially so if healthy behaviors start in youth and young adulthood, when breast tissue is still developing and may be at its most susceptible to harms that can increase risk later in life.  Avoiding tobacco and alcohol can help protect against the disease.  Being physically active, keeping weight in check, and eating fruits and vegetables can lower risk. Avoiding birth control pills and menopausal hormone therapy can also lower risk, but balancing the risks and benefits of such medications is important, and people should talk to a doctor to better understand the balance.  For women who are able to do so, breastfeeding for a total of one year (all children combined) also seems to have breast health benefits.

For women at high risk of breast cancer, the prescription drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene can cut the risk of the disease by about half.

 

Ways to lower breast cancer risk         Benefit
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best ↓↓
Not smoking
Drinking alcohol at low levels, if at all – Under 3 drinks per week
Eating 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day
Being physically active – 30 min or more on most days
Avoiding menopausal hormone therapy

 

↓↓
Avoiding birth control pills
(If high risk) Taking prescription tamoxifen/raloxifene for 5 or more years

 

↓↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. Once a leading cause of cancer death in the US, cervical cancer rates have plummeted.  Regular screenings with Pap tests and human papillomavirus (HPV) tests can help prevent the disease or catch it early when it’s most treatable.  And with the recommended HPV vaccine for pre-teen girls and boys, rates of cervical cancer should drop even further.  HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer.

Not smoking, limiting the number of male sexual partners, and using condoms and/or diaphragms for birth control can help prevent the disease as well.

 

Ways to lower cervical cancer risk      Benefit
Getting the HPV vaccine – Typically given at age 11 to 12 years old, but can be given into 20s. ↓↓↓↓
Getting a Pap test or Pap + HPV test every 3 – 5 years ↓↓↓
Not smoking ↓↓↓
Limiting number of male sexual partners – Fewer the better ↓↓
Using diaphragm/condom as main method of birth control ↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Colon cancer

Up to 75 percent of colon cancers could be avoided with regular screening and other healthy behaviors.

Screening is the single best protection.  It can both catch cancer early – and help prevent it.  Most people should start screening at age 50. Though, some guidelines recommend age 45.  There are a number of effective screening tests. Some are easy to do but need to be done more often. Others are more involved but need to be done less often.  Talk with a doctor about the possible costs and benefits of different tests and what’s right for you.

Other behaviors that lower risk include: keeping weight in check, getting regular exercise, eating whole grains, not smoking, and avoiding too much alcohol and red/processed meat.  Taking a daily multivitamin and getting enough calcium and vitamin D can also lower risk, as can taking a daily aspirin (but check with a doctor beforehand).

Birth control pills and menopausal hormone therapy can protect against the disease as well.  However, balancing the risks and benefits of such medications is important, and people should talk to a doctor to better understand the balance.

Ways to lower colon cancer risk           Benefit
Getting screened regularly from age 50 on (some guidelines recommend starting at age 45).  Tests include: colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, gFOBT/FIT, or others.

 

↓↓
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best ↓↓
Taking a daily multivitamin ↓↓
Getting enough vitamin D – About 1,000 IU per day ↓↓
Being physically active – 30 min or more on most days ↓↓
Not smoking
Drinking alcohol only moderately, if at all
Limiting red and processed meat – Under 3 servings per week
Eating 3 or more servings of whole grains per day
Getting enough calcium – About 1,000 – 1200 mg per day
(Ages 50 – 69) Taking a low-dose aspirin most days long term – Check with doctor first
(Women) Taking birth control pills for over 5 years
(Women) Taking menopausal hormone therapy 5 years or longer
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is fairly rare in the US.  Even so, around 64,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year.  Steps people can take to lower their risk of kidney cancer include keeping weight in check, not smoking, and avoiding (or controlling) high blood pressure.

Light to moderate drinking can lower the risk of kidney cancer, but at the same time it can increase the risk of colon and breast cancers. Overall, drinking moderate or lower levels of alcohol is OK for most people.  Not drinking is OK, too.

Ways to lower kidney cancer risk         Benefit
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best ↓↓
Having healthy blood pressure ↓↓
Not smoking ↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Lung cancer

Not smoking is clearly the single most important thing people can do to prevent lung cancer.  Even for those who used to smoke, quitting has huge benefits.  Risk begins to drop after two years, and after 15 – 20 years risk, is practically equal to that of someone who never smoked.   While hard, quitting is far from impossible.  Seeing a doctor for help can double, and even triple, chances of quitting for good.

For those who don’t smoke, avoiding regular exposure to secondhand smoke can help protect against lung cancer.

Unprotected exposure to asbestos, radon, and chemicals common in some smelting/manufacturing jobs are also very important risk factors for lung cancer.  For people who must work with these substances, the best thing they can do is wear proper protective equipment in the workplace and be familiar with the substances they work with.

Ways to lower lung cancer risk  Benefit
Not smoking ↓↓↓↓
Avoiding secondhand (passive) smoke
(In workers) Avoiding unprotected work with asbestos ↓↓↓↓
(In workers) Avoiding unprotected work with aluminum, beryllium, bis(chloromethyl) ether and chloromethyl ether, cadmium, chromium, coke, mustard gas, radon, silica, or sulfuric acid mist ↓↓↓↓
(In workers) Avoiding unprotected work with arsenic smelting, coal gasification, iron or steel founding ↓↓↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Ovarian cancer

While there are steps women can take to lower the risk of ovarian cancer, most of them aren’t considered pure lifestyle choices.  Keeping weight in check and not using talcum powder are pretty straightforward ways to lower risk, but other options are complicated choices with many different aspects to consider outside of lowering the risk of cancer.  These include breastfeeding, avoiding menopausal hormone therapy, having the fallopian tubes tied, and having a hysterectomy.  For most of these, talking with a doctor beforehand about the overall risks and benefits is an important step.

Ways to lower ovarian cancer risk       Benefit
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best
Not using talcum powder in underwear or genital area
Breastfeeding – 1 year or more (all children combined)
Avoiding long term menopausal hormone therapy
Having fallopian tubes tied or removed ↓↓
Having a hysterectomy
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a fairly rare disease that is also fairly scary, since it’s often very aggressive and hard to treat.  Yet, there are some steps people can take that can lower the risk of pancreatic cancer. This includes keeping weight in check, not smoking, and taking steps to avoid type 2 diabetes (like exercising more and choosing more whole-grain foods).

Ways to lower pancreatic cancer risk Benefit
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best ↓↓
Not smoking ↓↓
Avoiding type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar) ↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Aggressive Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in United States men.  Over 160,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and although the disease isn’t usually fatal, some forms can be aggressive and harder to treat. Frustratingly few lifestyle factors have been linked to prostate cancer, but men can take a few key steps to lower their risk of developing aggressive forms of the disease. These include not smoking, keeping weight in check, eating more tomato-based foods, and avoiding too much calcium by sticking to the recommended 1000 -1200 mg per day for most adults.

 

Ways to lower aggressive prostate cancer risk       Benefit
Eating 5 or more servings of tomato-based foods per week ↓↓
Keeping calcium intake to recommended levels – Around 1000 – 1200 mg per day for most adults ↓↓
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best
Not smoking
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Skin cancer: Melanoma

Sun protection is key to lowering the risk of melanoma, the most serious, deadly form of skin cancer.  It is, of course, most important to protect children from sunburns, but to lower risk of all types of skin cancer, both children and adults should avoid as much exposure as possible during peak burning hours (10am – 4pm); wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats; and properly apply broad-spectrum sun screen. Also important is avoiding tanning bed use, especially in youth and early adulthood.

Ways to lower melanoma risk    Benefit
Avoiding severe sunburns in childhood ↓↓↓
Avoiding indoor tanning ↓↓
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Stomach cancer

Though fairly rare in the United States, stomach cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide. The most important risk factor for stomach cancer is infection with a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori (H pylori).  While it can be difficult to avoid getting H pylori, especially for populations in lower-income countries, treating it can greatly lower the risk from the infection.  Treatment usually involves a combination of antibiotics and drugs that lowers acid levels in the stomach.  Not smoking, keeping weight in check, avoiding too much alcohol, and eating a low sodium diet can also help protect against stomach cancer.

Ways to lower stomach cancer risk     Benefit
Avoiding or treating H pylori infection ↓↓↓
Not smoking ↓↓
Eating a low-sodium diet – Under 2300 mg per day ↓↓
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best
Drinking alcohol only moderately, if at all
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large

Uterine cancer

Uterine cancer (also called endometrial cancer) is one of the most common cancers in women. Behaviors like drinking coffee, keeping weight in check, and avoiding diabetes with healthy lifestyle choices can help lower the risk of uterine cancer.  Less traditional lifestyle factors can also lower risk, such as taking birth control pills and, in postmenopausal women, avoiding menopausal hormone therapy.  However, balancing the risks and benefits of such medications is important, and people should talk to a doctor to better understand the balance.

Ways to lower uterine cancer risk        Benefit
Avoiding estrogen-alone menopausal hormone therapy ↓↓↓↓
Keeping weight in check – BMI 18.5 – 24.9 is best ↓↓
Avoiding type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar) ↓↓
Taking birth control pills for 5 years or longer ↓↓
Being physically active – 30 min or more on most days
Drinking 2 or more cups of coffee per day (decaf or regular)
Drop in risk: ↓ = small, ↓↓ = moderate, ↓↓↓ = large, ↓↓↓↓ = very large