Do you ever feel like your future is out of your control? It can be scary having no idea what’s coming down the pike, especially when it comes to your health. But when it comes to preventing cancer, a recent study shows that a few lifestyle changes can make a huge impact.
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The 2022 study shows that smoking, drinking alcohol and carrying excess weight are the leading causes of preventable cancer deaths.
“Worldwide, nearly 4.5 million cancer-related deaths — about 45% of them — are attributed to behavioral risk factors like smoking, drinking and sedentary lifestyle,” says oncologist Suneel Kamath, MD. “That’s a much higher percentage than we’d previously thought.”
How to lower your risk of cancer
“Nearly two-thirds of all cancer-related deaths are due to preventable causes,” says Dr. Kamath.
The key word there, of course, is “preventable,” meaning that there are steps you can take and changes you can make that will lower your risk of developing the disease.
So, what can you do? Dr. Kamath explains which key lifestyle changes will help decrease your cancer risk.
If you smoke cigarettes, one of the best things you can do for your health — not only to prevent cancer but to lower your risk of other diseases and conditions, too — is to make a commitment to quit. Cigarettes (and the secondhand smoke they produce) contain ingredients that are, simply put, poisonous.
“The chemicals in cigarette smoke damage the DNA, or genetic blueprints of all of your body’s cells, which can lead normal cells to turn into cancerous ones,” Dr. Kamath explains. “Then, if cancer cells start to grow within your body, the chemicals in cigarettes also impair your body’s ability to repair the DNA damage, and it can’t kill off those cancerous cells.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 12.5% of American adults smoke cigarettes, and that percentage is much larger in other countries. In Chile, for example, nearly 45% of the population smokes, while on the Pacific island of Nauru, that number rises to a whopping 52%.
“Smoking is still unfortunately very common, especially among men and particularly in developing countries,” Dr. Kamath states. “From a public health standpoint, there is a lot of opportunity for change.”
Nine out of 10 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. are smoking-related, but smoking also raises your risk of nearly every other type of cancer, too.
Questioning how much your smoking habit really means for your health? Here’s another point to drive it home: “There are many tumor types that we almost never see in nonsmokers,” Dr. Kamath says.
Scale way back on (or quit) drinking
You may not think twice about throwing back a few drinks at happy hour. But data shows that the less you drink, the lower your risk of cancer — and conversely, the more you drink, the higher your risk becomes.
Regular alcohol consumption increases your risk of cancer of the:
While you may have heard that some types of alcohol are better for you than others, this isn’t true when it comes to cancer risk. “All types of alcohol are associated with an increased risk of cancer,” Dr. Kamath clarifies. “That includes beer, red and white wine, liquor, seltzer cocktails … all of it.”
And the risk extends beyond cancer, too. One study found that alcohol was associated with 2.8 million deaths each year, making it the leading cause of death of people ages 15 to 49.
The statistics are clear: Whether you’re sober curious or know that you’re ready to stop drinking, getting sober (or starting to significantly limit your alcohol consumption) can do wonders for your health.
Pursue a healthy weight
The August 2022 study found that, along with smoking and alcohol use, having a high body mass index (BMI) is one of the top three preventable causes of cancer-related deaths.
“Obesity presents a modest increased risk for nearly every type of cancer,” Dr. Kamath states. “Each individual’s risk from it is not that large, but if you look at population levels, you’ll find that hundreds of thousands of cancers are caused by obesity.”
The data, he adds, shows an increase in obesity and overweight as a risk factor for cancer. “Between 2010 and 2019, it went up by 20%, mostly due to metabolic factors — and mainly obesity,” Dr. Kamath notes.
This topic is nuanced, multifaceted and more than a little bit tricky, in part because obesity and overweight are metabolic health conditions. Plus, BMI isn’t always an accurate measure of what a healthy weight should be. But what’s clear is that some factors that can lead to obesity and overweight are within individuals’ ability to manage — and change.
Living a sedentary lifestyle (not getting enough exercise) and eating a poor diet can both contribute to weight gain. They also raise your risk of heart disease, even if your BMI is considered healthy. So, instead of looking only at the numbers on the scale or in the tag of your jeans, focus on leading a healthy lifestyle and making choices that you know are good for your body:
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get enough good, high-quality sleep.
- Manage your stress levels.
“You don’t need to make sudden, drastic changes,” Dr. Kamath says. “But if you start making small changes that you can then sustain over months and years, that’s going to make a huge difference. And for most of us, small modifications are doable.”
Other factors in preventing cancer
Other lifestyle practices and behaviors play a role in your cancer risk, too:
- Unsafe sex: The August 2022 study also named unsafe sex as a key risk factor for cancer (especially cervical cancer) in women (and people AFAB) around the world. Practice safe sex to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
- Ultra-processed foods: “We have a lot more access to processed foods and antibiotics in our food today, compared to 50 years ago,” Dr. Kamath says. Researchers suspect that such foods contribute to cancer risk, so do your best to stick to whole foods.
- Sun exposure: The August 2022 study didn’t specifically look at sun exposure, but it did note that UV rays are also a preventable cause of cancer. Try to limit your time in the sun and always, always wear sunscreen.
Finally, this isn’t something you can undo or change now, but it’s still important to know: In the 1980s and ‘90s, doctors were much more likely to prescribe antibiotics than they are today. And frequent antibiotic use may raise your cancer risk.
“Some literature shows that people who took a lot of antibiotics at a very young age may have an altered gut microbiome that is now having a negative effect later on,” Dr. Kamath says.
Can cancer be fully prevented?
All the lifestyle changes in the world still can’t guarantee that you’ll never develop cancer or other health issues. Sometimes, nature just runs its course, and genetics can play a role, too.
“While just under half of cancer-related deaths are preventable, the reality is that over half of them are not,” Dr. Kamath says. “Unfortunately, people who lead very healthy lifestyles do still develop cancer — but at the same time, we still need to take every opportunity we can to maximize prevention.”
Importantly, the study shows hard proof that lifestyle changes can go a long way for your overall health.
“Making these changes, while difficult to do, results in a major improvement to your overall risk — about a 40% to 50% reduction in your cancer risk,” Dr. Kamath adds. “Someone who limits alcohol consumption, maintains a healthy weight, lives an active lifestyle and doesn’t smoke is at a much lower overall risk for cancer, across the board.”
And these changes have a cumulative effect, so the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be.
“We typically see the effects of these habits in people who are in their 60s and up, so from a public health standpoint, it’s most important to start making positive changes earlier, like in your 20s and 30s,” Dr. Kamath says. “If you can develop healthy habits when you’re young, you will continue them as you age, which is how you mitigate risk.”
But it’s always a good time to start making healthy changes — and every little bit can help, Dr. Kamath says. “Small, sustainable changes can make a very big impact.”