Cancer is scary — we all know that. But it’s also scary how powerless we feel against it. Genetics play a part in some types of cancer, sure. But that doesn’t mean your genes dictate your story. Here’s how to flex the very real power you do have to keep the big C at bay.
Step on the scale
Excess body weight can wreak havoc on your health — including increasing your risk of cancer. “Body fat tissue can actually generate estrogen, and higher levels of estrogen are associated with female cancers, such as breast, ovarian, and endometrial,” says Shelley Tworoger, MD, associate center director of population science at Moffitt Cancer Center, a nonprofit research and treatment facility in Tampa, Fla. That’s just one of the mechanisms responsible for the fact that obese and overweight women are more likely to develop breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. For instance, among postmenopausal women, those who are obese have up to a 40 percent increase in risk of developing breast cancer compared with normal-weight women.
Even if you’re maintaining a healthy BMI at the moment, be mindful of scale creep — something many Americans fall victim to as they age. “A lot of people gain one or two pounds every year,” says Tworoger. “But if you think about that over the course of 30 years, that adds up to a large amount of weight. It can be insidious.”
Sweat It Out
Need motivation to get moving? Consider this: A 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that regular physical activity could reduce the risk of 13 types of cancer, including breast and endometrial. And those benefits largely held true whether participants were overweight, obese or smokers. Studies have also shown that for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, exercising the equivalent of five hours a week (walking at a brisk pace is enough!) can improve survival rates.
Cut back on the cocktails
We’ve all heard that moderate drinking can have some benefits for heart health, but when it comes to reducing cancer risk, your best bet is to further moderate that moderation. Alcohol use is associated with mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. “And for women, even a daily drink is associated with a higher risk of breast cancer,” says Tworoger. Why? Alcohol increases estrogen levels, which may play a role in the underlying mechanisms of breast cancer.
Amend your diet
When it comes to cancer, not all calories are created equal. “We have a model called the New American Plate, which is a guide for your whole diet,” says Alice Bender, director of nutrition programs at the American Institute of Cancer Research. “Make sure two-thirds of what you put on your plate comes from plants — vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit, nuts — and one-third or less can contain animal foods, whether poultry, fish, or dairy.” Not only will this help keep your weight in check, but a plant-based diet packs a lot of fiber and nutrients that can help reduce cancer risk. “Colorful vegetables have a lot of phytochemicals, which have been shown to help prevent cancer,” Bender says. Cruciferous vegetables, such as arugula, broccoli, cauliflower and kale, may even inhibit the development of cancer in certain organs. And Bender points out that lightly steaming vegetables won’t demolish their health benefits. “You don’t have to eat all raw food!”
As for what not to eat, research suggests that vegetarians and vegans may have the lowest risk of cancer, as meat, dairy, and egg consumption have been linked to certain types of cancer. For carnivores, the biggest risk bump comes from eating red and processed meat: Red meat contains heme iron, and processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites, all of which may damage the lining of the colon and increase the risk of cancer. If all or nothing feels overwhelming, aim for moderation. “With red meat, the recommendation is no more than 18 ounces, cooked, per week,” says Bender. That’s the equivalent of about two restaurant burgers a week.
Get some sleep!
It’s not an obvious connection to make, but Tworoger says that sleep can actually factor in to our cancer risk. How? “Studies show that people who have poor sleep habits — whether they have sleep apnea or sleep in short durations — can actually see changes in their metabolism that can lead to increased weight gain. And that higher adiposity can lead to worse sleep, which can exacerbate additional weight gain.” The lesson? Think twice before pulling that all-nighter.
Know your history, and know your options
Despite the best intentions and habits, our genes aren’t always on our side when it comes to cancer risk. “Sometimes genetic predisposition overrides what we can do,” Tworoger says, referring to strong indicators like the BRCA mutation, which can signify much higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
But even with a genetic mutation, you have options. Talk with a trusted health care provider about what approach makes the most sense, for your situation. Some women opt for intense monitoring, hormonal birth control, and/or prescription medications to lower their cancer risk, though each comes with its own set of potential side effects. Still others opt for surgical options, such as a mastectomy or ovary removal. Early genetic testing can put time on your side, says Tworoger, so you can settle on an action plan without feeling rushed.
Don’t smoke, silly
We won’t lecture you on the many (many!) evils of lighting up, but you should consider this stat: A 2013 study by the American Institute of Cancer Research found that smokers were 24 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than non-smokers, and even those who had quit were 13 percent more likely to get the disease. And that’s in addition to the greater cancer risk you’ll have in your cervix, liver, mouth, throat, colon, bladder, and blood. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: “Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body.” That means if you start a smoking cessation program, almost every part of your body might thank you.
Slather on the Sunscreen
First, the bad news: According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of melanoma incidences among American adult women has nearly tripled since the 1970s. But the good news is that research shows that daily sunscreen use may halve your risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Want to maximize your protection? Make sure you’re putting that sunscreen on right (mistakes are more common than you might think!).