According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), nearly 12 million people in the U.S. were living with cancer in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available. This year, the ACS estimates that there will be more than 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed.
Here are eight lifestyle behaviors to help you avoid cancer, and keep in mind that these more obvious lifestyle factors are not included on the list:
- Don’t smoke
- Exercise regularly, but not too intensely
- Eat natural foods, particularly lots of vegetables
1. Don’t panic about getting cancer: Dr. Robert Weinberg, professor of biology at MIT and a pioneer in cancer research most widely known for his discoveries of the first human oncogene — a gene that causes normal cells to form tumors — tells Mother Nature Network, “Aside from the big elephant in the living room, ‘lung cancer,’ cancer rates have been constant over the last half-century with other cancers. There’s a diagnostic bias that makes it seem like we’re experiencing a surge in cancer as new diagnostic techniques have screened cancers that would have been previously undetected.” Weinberg concludes, “But we are not in a cancer epidemic.”
2. Don’t overeat: Dr. Min Guo, assistant professor of cancer biology at Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus, studies cancer metabolism. He tells MNN that tumors grow much faster than regular cells. Overeating can encourage tumor growth. “Tumors require a lot more energy to absorb nutrients and grow and divide faster than a normal, healthy cell. One of the best ways to prevent tumors is to control your own diet. Eat sufficiently but not more than you need. Control your calories and protein intake,” recommends Guo, who adds that it’s probably OK to eat a little chicken at lunch, some fish for dinner, but not three cheeseburgers at the next barbeque. Controlling your weight can prevent cancer. After tobacco usage, obesity is the second leading lifestyle factor contributing to cancer rates.
3. Don’t eat a lot of red meat: MIT’s Weinberg says that although scientists don’t completely understand why eating red meat can encourage tumor growth, there are a couple of theories: cooking at high temperatures (another reason to curb your barbecue cravings) and red meat’s natural glycoproteins, which induce chronic inflammation in human tissue.
4. Don’t eat too many carbohydrates: Although some vegetarians and vegans might feel validation about their diet after hearing red meat’s potential deleterious nature, eating too many carbohydrates can also lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn, could encourage tumor growth. There are numerous studies linking high carbohydrate intake to metabolic risk factors, including this Dutch study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that concluded that a low glycemic load diet, which is high in dairy and fruit but low in potatoes and cereals, is associated with improved insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism and reduced chronic inflammation.
5. Don’t panic about eating organic: Again, MIT’s Weinberg: “There’s no evidence that eating organic food makes you any healthier,” he says. But when asked about conventionally grown produce containing pesticides and harmful fumigation that could potentially encourage tumor growth, Weinberg says, “It’s only a risk for people exposed in large quantities such as agricultural workers … there is no shred of evidence that pesticide-contaminated food has ever given a single person cancer in this country, not a shred of evidence.”
Another prominent oncologist, David Hoffman, M.D., partner at Cedars-Sinai’s Tower Hematology-Oncology Medical Group, echoes Weinberg. “There is absolutely nothing scientific to support the benefit of an organic diet and the risk of developing a malignancy.”
6. Take supplements: Selenium, according to Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide, may protect against prostate cancer, though further research is needed. And according to research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, a team from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University concluded, with some reservations, that calcium supplements may guard against the development of large colon polyps and colorectal cancer. In an editorial on the calcium-colorectal cancer study, doctors from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., said, “This study does not yet prove that a causal relation between calcium intake and colorectal cancer exists. However, studies are now in place with the potential to provide a compelling — almost proven — case that a nutritional factor (calcium) can alter the occurrence of [colorectal cancer].”
7. Avoid toxic environments and practice safe sex: Cedars-Sinai’s Hoffman says, “There are certain exposures that are strongly related to the development of malignancy, such as asbestos (mesothelioma and lung cancer), benzene (leukemia), and viruses (such as human papilloma virus and cancers of the anus, cervix, and throat).
8. Get screened, but not too often: The ACS now recommends that women ages 21-29 get screened for cervical cancer every three years instead of every year as previously advised. If you’ve never smoked, don’t get screened for lung cancer. Invasive lung biopsies could be harmful. Since 2009, women over the age of 50 have been encouraged by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force to get mammograms every other year instead of annually.
“There continues to be a vigorous debate about the utility of screening with mammograms and PSA testing and the benefit with respect to overall survival for breast and prostate cancers, respectively,” says Hoffman. “What is clear is that colon and rectal cancer are frequently preventable with screening colonoscopy that routinely starts at age 50 for those considered to be at average risk,” Hoffman adds.
Judd Handler is a health writer based in Encinitas, California.