Health Library

Lifestyle Changes That May Help Prevent Cancer

Topic Overview

Experts believe that one-third to one-half of all cancers can be prevented.

That's because there are certain things about our lifestyles—our daily habits—that can make us more likely to get cancer. Here are some steps you can take today to help prevent cancer:

  1. Quit smoking.
  2. Eat well.
  3. Stay at a healthy weight.
  4. Stay active.
  5. Protect your skin.
  6. Drink alcohol wisely.
  7. Practice safer sex.
  8. Get regular checkups and screenings.
  9. Consider getting the HPV vaccine if you're age 26 or younger.
  10. Avoid toxins and other poisons at work and at home.

Your doctor may recommend other things based on your personal health history. For example, taking aspirin to prevent cancer may be a good idea for some people. But taking aspirin can have risks, too. So talk to your doctor about what cancer prevention tips are best for you.

Quit smoking

When you quit smoking, you lower your chances of getting many types of cancer. Smoking makes you more likely to get cancers of the lung, bladder, kidneys, pancreas, cervix, mouth, esophagus, and throat.

Quitting is hard, but you can do it with the right amount of information and support. And there are several medicines that work well to help people quit for good. For information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

And for more help, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Quitting Smoking: Getting Support.
Click here to view an Actionset.Quitting Smoking: Coping With Cravings and Withdrawal.
Click here to view a Decision Point.Quitting Smoking: Should I Use Medicine?

Eat well

Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes (for example, peas and beans), fish, poultry, and whole grains helps prevent cancer. Limit the amount of fat in your diet, especially animal fat.

Some scientists think certain supplements might help prevent cancer, but there isn't enough research yet to prove that. If you want to take supplements to prevent cancer, talk to your doctor about what is safe for you to take. Eating healthy foods is still the best way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

For ideas and tips, see:

Stay at a healthy weight

If you are very overweight, your chances of getting some forms of cancer are higher. And people whose extra fat is in the waist area may be at higher risk than people whose extra fat is in the hips or thighs.

Eating a healthy diet and being more active can help you reach a healthy weight. It can be hard to change habits around eating and being active. But you can do it by taking one step at a time. To learn how, see Getting to a Healthy Weight: Lifestyle Changes.

For more help making these changes, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Healthy Eating: Starting a Plan for Change.
Click here to view an Actionset.Healthy Eating: Overcoming Barriers to Change.

Stay active

Being active every day may prevent a number of cancers. And regular activity can help you get to and stay at a healthy weight, which can also help keep you from getting cancer.

Being physically active and getting enough sleep may work together to lower your cancer risk even more than activity alone, especially for women.

If you're not used to being active every day, think about taking small steps to change your habits. For more information, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Fitness: Adding More Activity to Your Life.
Click here to view an Actionset.Fitness: Staying Active When You Have Young Children.
Click here to view an Actionset.Fitness: Choosing Activities That Are Right for You.

For more ideas and tips, see:

Protect your skin

Most skin cancer is caused by too much sun. Follow these steps to help prevent skin cancer:

  • Stay out of the sun when you can, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the hours of peak ultraviolet (UV) exposure.
  • If you must go out in the sun, wear protective clothing, like a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants.
  • On skin that isn't covered by clothing, use a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Use it every day, all year, even when it is cloudy. Sunscreens that say "broad-spectrum" can protect the skin from ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays.
  • Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
  • Use lip balm or cream that has sun protection factor (SPF) to protect your lips from getting sunburned or developing cold sores.
  • Avoid tanning booths and sunlamps, which emit UV radiation and can cause skin damage.

For more information, see:

Click here to view an Actionset.Skin Cancer: Protecting Your Skin.

Drink alcohol wisely

People who drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day—and especially those who drink more than 3 drinks a day—have a slightly higher risk for colon cancer.

If you're a woman, you may help prevent breast cancer by limiting yourself to 1 drink a day. Using alcohol leads to extra estrogen in the body, which raises your breast cancer risk.

Practice safer sex

Practicing safer sex helps keep you from getting HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer in women. Safer sex includes using condoms and talking to every potential sex partner about his or her sexual history.

Get regular checkups and screenings

Visiting your doctor and dentist for regular checkups is good for your health. Your doctor can schedule regular screenings for various types of cancer, such as mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopy for colon cancer.

Most screenings and checkups are to find cancer early, when it's easier to treat and may even be curable. But there are some things your doctor may recommend that can actually prevent certain cancers in the first place.

There are several types of screening tests for colon cancer. But only two of them can actually prevent cancer: colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. These tests can find and remove polyps in the colon before they turn into cancer. For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point.Colon Cancer: Which Screening Test Should I Have?

Consider vaccinations

If you are age 26 or younger, you can get the HPV shot to protect against the virus that can cause cervical cancer. Three shots are given over 6 months. The series of shots is recommended for girls age 11 or 12 and can be given to females ages 9 to 26.

Males age 9 through 26 may also get the HPV shot (Gardasil) which may prevent anal cancer.

Avoid toxins and other poisons at work and at home

Living or working in unhealthy places can make you sick. Stay away from certain chemicals and other things in the environment that can increase your chances of getting cancer.

  • Asbestos, an insulating material found in some older buildings, can cause tumors, lung cancer, and other diseases.
  • Unsafe drinking water from a rural well polluted with pesticides or other poisons from a nearby industrial plant could cause allergies, cancer, or other problems.
  • Take care when using cleaning products, paints, solvents, and pesticides. Try not to use them inside the house. If you must use them inside, use a fan to blow strong odors and fumes out of your home. Be aware that paint can release trace gases for months after you apply it. Try to use paint without volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Avoid being exposed to benzene, which can cause cancer. Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, stored fuels, paint supplies, and vehicle exhaust inside garages.
  • Radon is a radioactive gas that causes cancer. Radon is found in rock, soil, water, some building materials, and natural gas. Studies show that nearly 1 out of every 15 homes in the United States has unsafe levels of radon.1 The U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend that all homes be tested for radon levels. For more information, see the topic Radon.

References

Citations

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2012). A Citizen's Guide to Radon: The Guide to Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Radon. Available online:http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/citguide.html.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Michael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Current as of October 14, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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