Seven Steps To Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Researchers say if we stopped using tobacco, grew thinner, exercised regularly, avoided diets rich in red meat, and ate diets rich in fruits and vegetables, we would prevent two-thirds all cancers. Here are 7 steps -- all within your control -- that you can take to reduce your cancer risk:


1. First and foremost, don't use tobacco in any form.


Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death - with 400,000 Americans dying every year from their own cigarette smoking, and an additional 26,000 - 73,000 nonsmokers dying each year from exposure to secondhand smoke. Smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, card accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides COMBINED!

Of the roughly 416,000 kids who become daily smokers each year, almost a third will ultimately die from it. Smokers lose, on average, 13 to 14 years of life because of smoking.

Smoking damages nearly every organ in the human body. It is linked to at least 15 different cancers and accounts for some 30% of all cancer deaths, and 90% of all cases of lung cancer - the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. Yet, one in five Americans still lights up. And, nearly every adult who smokes (almost 90 percent) took his or her first puff at or before the age of 18.

Call to quit - today!
If you or someone you love uses tobacco, call 1.800.227.2345 to get the help you need to quit. Or, visit


2. Maintain a healthy weight throughout life.


In the United States, overweight and obesity contribute to 14% - 20% of all cancer deaths. Being overweight are clearly associated with increased of developing many cancers, including breast (in postmenopausal women), colon, endometrium, kidney, and esophagus, and it is suspected to raise risk of other types of cancer, as well.

The best way to reduce body fat is to restrict caloric intake and increase physical activity. To reduce calories, reduce your portion sizes (ditch the supersizing), avoid high-calorie foods such as fired foods, cookies, cakes, candy, ice cream, and soft drinks.

Fat tissue increases estrogen levels and high estrogen levels increase breast cancer risk. Obesity also leads to high levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in the circulation. This could prevent early-stage cancer cells scattered throughout the body from dying, since insulin-like growth factor inhibits the action of cell suicide genes. Fat cells also release inflammatory chemicals into the circulation that can stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

The good news is that regular or moderate exercise lowers the levels of inflammation and IGF-1 -- even if the exercise does not lead to a healthy weight. And, regular exercise also lowers blood-estrogen levels in women, helping protect against breast cancer.

Being overweight in youth tends to continue throughout life, so keeping a healthy (not obsessive) watch on your weight is a good thing.


3. Adopt a physically active lifestyle.


  • Adults: Engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, above usual activities, on 5 or more days of the week; 45 to 60 minutes of intentional physical activity are preferable.
  • Children and adolescents: Engage in at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 5 days per week.


4. Eat more fruits and vegetables, less red meat.


Have you ever read the label on packaged foods? It's sometimes hard to figure out what the actual food is inside. The more unprocessed your food is, the better. We recommend you:

  • Eat 5 or more servings of vegetables and fruits each day. (This isn't as hard as you think. One serving equals 1 medium apple, banana, orange, etc.; 1/2 cup of chopped, cooked, or canned fruit; 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables; and 1/2 cup of other cooked or raw vegetables, chopped.) The brighter the vegetable the more antioxidants it contains. Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, and many phytochemicals that help prevent damage to cells in the body from chemical reactions with oxygen. Whether they actually reduce cancer risk is open to debate.
  • Limit French fries, snack chips, and other fried vegetable products and avoid all trans fats.
  • Choose whole grain rice, bread, pasta, and cereals over processed (refined) products.
  • Limit intake of refined carbohydrates (starches), such as pastries, sweetened cereals, and other high-sugar foods.
  • Limit intake of processed meats and red meats - both of which have been linked to colon cancer.
  • Choose fish, poultry, or beans instead of beef, pork, and lamb.
  • When you eat meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions.
  • Prepare meat by baking, broiling, or poaching, rather than by frying or charbroiling. Cooking meat and fish at high temperatures causes cancer-causing agents to form. Two ways to alleviate this are to use a marinade that contains lemon or vinegar marinade before you put the meat on the grill, and to avoid having the fire flare up.


5. If you drink alcoholic beverages, limit your intake.


Drink no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 per day for men. Alcohol consumption is an established cause of cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, and breast. For each of these cancers, risk increases substantially with intake of more than 2 drinks per day. Regular consumption of even a few drinks per week has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women. How alcohol affects breast cancer is not clear. It may be because alcohol increases estrogen levels in the blood, reduces folic acid, or has a direct effect on breast tissue.


6. Don't catch those rays - outdoors or in the tanning bed.


Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, and one of the most preventable. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. Although repeated exposure to X-rays or contact with certain chemicals can play a role, sun exposure is by far the most common cause of skin cancer.

Most skin cancer occurs on exposed parts of your body, including your face, hands, forearms and ears. Nearly all skin cancer is treatable if you detect it early, but it's better to prevent it in the first place. Try these tips:

  • Avoid peak radiation hours. The sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation peaks between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Minimize or avoid being outside during these hours.
  • Stay in the shade. If you go outside, minimize your sun exposure by staying in the shade.
  • Cover exposed areas. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing that protects you from the sun's rays. Use tightly woven fabrics that cover your arms and legs, and wear a broad-brimmed hat that covers your head and ears.
  • Don't skimp on sunscreen. Make sure your sunscreen has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
  • Don't use indoor tanning beds or sun lamps. These can damage your skin as much as the sun can. There's no such thing as a healthy tan.

A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that one in every eight name-brand sunscreens did not protect against ultraviolet A rays which can cause long-term damage and skin cancer. The sun protection factor (SPF) rating currently placed on all sunscreens only reflects the lotion's effectiveness in blocking ultraviolet B rays. As a result of such research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the process of approving a new regulation that would set standards for testing and labeling sunscreens for UVA protection as well as for UVB.


7. Be Proactive -- Get screened


For people age 20 or older having periodic health exams, a cancer-related checkup should include health counseling, and depending on a person's age and gender, might include exams for cancers of the thyroid, oral cavity, skin, lymph nodes, testes, and ovaries, as well as for some non-malignant (non-cancerous) diseases.

All women should begin cervical cancer screening about 3 years after they begin having intercourse, but no later than age 21 years old. Screening should be done every year with the regular Pap test or every 2 years using the newer liquid-based Pap test. Women age 40 and older should get a mammogram every year, and men and women age 50, who are at average risk for colon cancer, should begin regular testing.

Read the American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer. The earlier cancer is found, the greater chance treatment will be successful. We have a free email mammogram reminder to alert women 40 and older to schedule their yearly mammogram. Share it with your loved ones!


Keep up with cancer news!


If you are interested in keeping up with cancer issues, read Dr. Len's Cancer Blog. Dr. Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. He directs the Society’s Cancer Control Science Department, which produces the Society’s widely recognized guidelines for the prevention and early detection of cancer and guidelines for nutrition and physical activity for cancer survivors.

If you ever have questions or concerns about cancer, call the American Cancer Society, 24/7, 365 days a year at 1.800.227.2345. We can help.