Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Men have a one-in-two lifetime risk of developing cancer. For women, the risk is one-in-three. Fortunately, it's never too late to drastically lower your risk.


+ enlarge image When you toast to your health, don't overdo it.

While moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to decrease the risk of coronary heart disease, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that cancer risk increases with more than two drinks a day. Studies also show an association between alcohol use and an increase in breast cancer risk. Women at high risk for breast cancer should consider not drinking at all, the ACS says.

Smoking also plays a major role in cancer. The American Lung Association estimates that smoking causes 87 percent of all lung cancer cases. The carcinogens in smoke get absorbed in the blood, carrying them to other parts of the body where other forms of cancer also are triggered. Secondhand smoke also poses cancer risks to everyone exposed.

Right Foods, Right Amounts

One-third of annual cancer deaths could be due to poor eating habits. Yet more than half of all Americans aren't eating enough healthy foods, and too much unhealthy food.

Colleen Doyle, a registered dietitian and national director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society. recommends making diet changes gradually. If you drink 2 percent milk, switch to 1 percent milk, which has the same amount of calcium. Try eating two vegetarian meals a week. Limit red meat to no more than three ounces a day.

Healthy Eating Tips:

+ enlarge image Mangoes are full of vitamin C.
  • The most effective dietary step to reduce cancer risk is to eat five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
  • Broccoli, Swiss chard, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and other types of cruciferous vegetables are power-packed cancer fighters. They're loaded with plant compounds (called phytochemicals) that help neutralize cancer-causing substances. These vegetables also are rich in antioxidants.
  • The vitamin C in oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and mangoes acts as an antioxidant, battling free radicals that can cause cell damage leading to cancer.
  • Try to eat whole grains at least twice a day. They contain lignans, another antioxidant plant chemical. Include whole grain bread, brown rice, and oatmeal or other high-fiber cereals in your weekly meal planning. Grain products are particularly protective against cancer when you eat seven or more servings a day.
  • Legumes (peas and beans) are also notable cancer fighters.
  • Evidence suggests that drinking two cups of black or green tea may lower your risk of several cancers. Studies suggest that adding milk to tea may blunt tea's antioxidant benefits.
  • Watch your weight. "Just being overweight increases your risk of cancer," says Doyle. For women, gaining weight after menopause also poses an increased risk for breast cancer.

Grill with Caution

Eating meat, poultry, and fish that are grilled has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. That's partly because fat from these types of food drips onto hot coals or stones, and the resulting smoke or flame causes the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Vegetables and fruits are safe to eat grilled because they don't form the compounds that occur in meat.

Melanie Polk, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition education for the American Institute for Cancer Research, says although there's no reason to eliminate grilled foods, there are precautions you can take to make barbecues safer. She recommends:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and remove skin from poultry before grilling.
  • Use tongs instead of a fork to turn food. Punctured meat will drip juices.
  • Partially cook meat in the oven or the microwave oven before grilling to reduce exposure time to smoke and flames.
  • Marinating foods may prevent carcinogens from forming, according to some recent studies.
  • Never eat burnt food, especially if it's been grilled.
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Skin cancer, including melanoma, is the most commonly occurring form of cancer, outranking all other cancers combined. Fortunately, there are protective measures you can take against the sun. In fact, about 90 percent of the more than 1 million new skin cancer cases diagnosed each year could be prevented.

"Melanoma is 100 percent curable in its earliest stage, but, after that, it goes down dramatically from there," says Dr. Barney Kenet, a dermatological surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "Many melanoma sufferers work indoors but have intense, short spurts of exposure to the sun, typically on weekends or vacations. This type of sun exposure during the first 15 years of life, especially when it results in a sunburn, increases the risk."

Follow these steps to help reduce your risk of skin cancer:

  • When out in the sun, wear a long-sleeve shirt, pants, sunglasses, and a hat. Dark colors offer more protection than light colors.
  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's ultraviolet rays are most damaging. Keep in mind that sand, water, snow, and even porch decks reflect up to 85 percent of the sun's damaging rays.
  • Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15. Apply it liberally, and don't forget to reapply throughout the day.

While the jury is still out on taking antioxidants in pill form to reduce cancer risk, Dr. Raymond DuBois, director of cancer prevention at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee, says just about everyone could benefit from one multivitamin a day.

There is exciting and promising research surrounding folate and colon cancer; Vitamin E and prostate cancer; and selenium and cancers of the prostate, lung, and colon, Doyle says, but not enough data exists yet to start recommending supplements for everyone.

Antioxidants, found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, have become recognized as cancer fighters, but taking megadoses of supplements can be too much of a good thing. Some antioxidants, such as vitamin A, can be toxic when the body gets more than it needs. Too much zinc in your diet may cause anemia, and excessive vitamin C can lead to urinary tract problems. Antioxidants work best, studies show, when they come from food instead of supplements.

Get Moving

Studies confirm that people who are more active have lower rates of cancer and heart disease. Experts say you should be active at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. This can be divided into 10- or 15-minute segments and can include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, gardening, even housework.

Schedule your workout time just as you would any other appointment. "I once saw a guy jogging through the airport concourse," says Doyle, laughing. "He must have planned for his layover because he had on shorts, a tank top, and running shoes."

Take Time to Relax

Exercise also can reduce stress in your daily life. Chronic stress can hinder the ability of the body to fight off illness, including cancer, says Daniel G. Amen, a clinical neuroscientist and author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Times Books, 2000). "Find a special place where you can be alone and train your mind to be quiet," says Amen. Quiet reflection can help lower blood pressure, reduce tension and pain in muscles, and improve temperament.

Regular screenings and self-exams can detect many cancers, but early detection is key to a good outcome. When detected early, the survival rate for cancer patients can be as high as 92 percent. "Colorectal cancer mortality can be reduced by as much as 70 percent by proper screening," says Dr. DuBois, of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Ten or more years can pass between mutations of cells that lead up to cancer and its actual detection. Screening requirements are different for everyone and should be based on age, sex, personal medical history, and family history, but they must be done regularly.

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