Think your chances of getting cancer are out of your hands? Think again! According to an American Cancer Society (ACS) study, 42% of cancer cases and 45% of cancer deaths are linked to preventable risk factors. This means that while you can’t control every aspect of your cancer risk (for example, family history), there is a lot you can do to take control of your health.
The top five lifestyle factors that researchers discovered had an impact on cancer cases and deaths were: cigarette smoking, being overweight, alcohol consumption, UV radiation exposure, and physical inactivity. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
Risk Factor #1: Smoking
Researchers found that the single most significant lifestyle factor affecting cancer was smoking. In the ACS study, smoking accounted for 19% of all cancer cases, 81.7% of lung cancers, 73.8% of laryngeal cancers, 50% of esophageal cancers, and 46.9% of bladder cancers. Smoking can also increase the risk for cancers of the mouth, kidney, cervix, liver, pancreas, stomach and colon/rectum as well as increase your risk for developing acute myeloid leukemia.
Dr. Aisha Ahmed, a Tucson-based medical oncologist/hematologist at Arizona Oncology, underscored the importance of taking charge of your health by avoiding smoking. “Both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Avoid tobacco in all its forms, including exposure to secondhand smoke.”
Risk Factor #2: Being Overweight
Excess body weight turned out to be the second most impactful risk factor for cancer cases and deaths in the study. Being overweight accounted for 60.3% of uterine cancers, 33.9% of liver cancers, 11.3% of breast cancers in women, and 5.2% of colorectal cancers. It isn’t limited to just these types of cancers, either. The list of cancers linked to excess body weight is long. Overall, the American Cancer Society estimates that excess body weight is responsible for about 11% of cancers in women and about 5% of cancers in men in the United States, as well as about 7% of all cancer deaths.
The reason for the link isn’t clear, and being overweight doesn’t play into all cancers equally. For example, excess body weight may be a factor in over half of all endometrial cancers, but isn’t as strongly linked to other forms of cancer. Excess weight appears to increase the risk of breast cancer in women after menopause, but not before. Also, women who are overweight as teenagers may be at higher risk for developing ovarian cancer before menopause.
Risk Factor #3: Alcohol
Third on the list of avoidable cancer risk factors is alcohol consumption. The ACS study found that drinking alcohol was a factor in 46.3% of oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers in men and 27.4% in women. It also played a role in 24.8% of liver cancers in men and 11.9% in women, 17.1% of colorectal cancers in men and 8.1% in women, and 6.4% of breast cancers in women. Alcohol is can also be linked to esophageal cancer. Overall, alcohol consumption was linked to 5.6% of cancer cases and 4% of deaths in the study.
So, how much is too much? In general, the more alcohol you drink, the higher your cancer risk. But for some types of cancer, most notably breast cancer, even a small amount of alcohol consumption can increase your risk. However, the type of alcoholic beverage does not play a role (i.e. beer, wine, or liquor). The American Cancer Society recommends avoiding alcohol altogether, but if you do choose to drink, limit your intake to two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink or fewer per day for women.
Risk Factor #4: UV Radiation Exposure
Of course, when we talk about UV radiation as a risk factor, we’re talking about skin cancer. “Protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, which increases the risk of melanomas and other skin cancers,” Dr. Ahmed said. Avoid tanning beds as well. In the ACS study, 96% of melanomas in men and 93.7% of those in women were due to UV radiation.
While you cannot go back in time and erase past sun exposure, having regular screenings for skin cancer and doing self skin checks at home can catch skin cancer early, when it is more treatable. In the ACS study, UV radiation was attributable to almost 5% of cancer cases and 1.5% of deaths.
Risk Factor #5: Physical Inactivity
The fifth most impactful, yet controllable, risk factor for cancer in the study was physical inactivity. It played a role in 2.9% of cancer cases and 2.2% of cancer deaths overall, specifically 26.7% of uterine cancers, 16.3% of colorectal cancers, and 3.9% of female breast cancers.
Getting and staying active is good for your health in many ways, and notably reduces your cancer risk. According to Dr. Ahmed, “Physical activity has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer. Exercise also appears to reduce a woman’s risk of breast and possibly reproductive cancers. Exercise will help protect you even if you don’t lose weight.”
Other Things You Can Do
Making healthy choices in these five areas will go a long way towards reducing your cancer risk, but that’s not all you can do. Other science-backed lifestyle choices that can help prevent cancer include:
● Avoiding or limiting consumption of red and processed meat
● Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, dietary fiber, and dietary calcium
● Protecting against cancer-associated infections, including Helicobacter pylori, hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HPC), human herpes virus type 8 (HHV8), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and human papillomavirus (HPV)
And lastly, what is the last thing you can do for your overall health? Keep up with your recommended cancer screenings! Sometimes tumors can be caught in the precancerous stage and treated before they develop into cancer. And, with regular screenings if you do develop cancer, it can be caught early when it is most treatable.