How Much Can You Lower Your Risk of Cancer Through Lifestyle?

How Much Can You Lower Your Risk of Cancer Through Lifestyle?


If there’s one disease that strikes fear in the hearts of humans, it’s cancer. Cancer can attack and invade almost any organ in your body. Among women, breast, lung, and colon cancer top the list of most common malignancies. Although the life expectancy with many forms of cancer is growing, cancer is still one of the leading causes of death in the United States. With cancer being so common, you might wonder to what extent lifestyle plays a role. Is cancer a preventable disease?

What New Research Shows about Lifestyle and Cancer

What role does lifestyle play in cancer risk? Researchers at the Harvard Medical School recently released findings from a new study looking at this issue. This research looks at cancer deaths and how they’re impacted by lifestyle. To obtain the data, researchers looked at the medical records of 136,000 adult Americans. What they found was about half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by making healthy lifestyle changes. In addition, up to 40% of all new cancers could be warded off. That’s encouraging!

Lifestyle versus Genetics

Cancer is a disease that arises from mutations, or alterations in DNA, the genetic material. These mutations cause cells to grow out of control and invade healthy tissues. Although certain genes predispose to cancer, most cancers aren’t inherited from family genes but arise from a combination of genetics and lifestyle.

Clearly there are genes that strongly predispose to cancer. For example, you may have heard of the BRCA 1 and 2 genes after Angelina Jolie, a carrier herself, created awareness. These genes greatly increase a woman’s chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer, yet most breast cancers in humans are not due to mutations of a specific gene. Rather, changes in many genes over a lifetime often due to environment and lifestyle factors that lead to the development of cancer.

As this new study shows, genes aren’t destiny and the way genes manifest can be modified through lifestyle. If lifestyle factors can prevent up to 40% of cancers and half of all cancer deaths, WHAT lifestyle modifications should you focus on? Here are the factors the study identified as most important.

Don’t Smoke

This one comes as no surprise. Women who smoke are 13 times more likely to get lung cancer relative to non-smokers. In fact, in 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among women. About 90% of all lung cancer is directly related to smoking. In addition, smoking increases the risk of other forms of cancer, including cancer of the liver, esophagus, kidney, bladder, throat, mouth, larynx, stomach, pancreas, colon, cervix, rectum, and at least one form of leukemia. As you can see, quitting smoking lowers your risk for a number of cancers.

Limit Alcohol

Drinking modest amounts of red wine, no more than one glass daily, may modestly lower your risk of developing heart disease but consuming more of any alcoholic beverage may raise your risk of cancer. Researchers in this study found cancer rates rose when men drank more than two alcoholic drinks daily while women had a higher risk when they drank more than one drink per day.

Limiting alcohol lowers the risk of a variety of cancers, including cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, and liver. Drink green instead. The cathecin antioxidants in green tea may offer protection against certain forms of cancer, including malignancies of the digestive tract.

Get at Least 2.5 Hours of Exercise Weekly

Exercise isn’t just good for your heart – it may lower your risk of cancer too. Cancers that exercise may lower the risk of include cancers of the uterus, breast, colon, prostate, and lung. For cancers of the breast and uterus, exercise is beneficial partially because it lowers the amount of estrogen your breasts and the lining of your uterus are exposed to. Estrogen stimulates the growth of the cells lining these two organs and increases the risk of a harmful, cancer-inducing mutation taking place.

Exercise also improves how your body handles insulin and helps prevent insulin resistance. That’s important since insulin and its close cousin IGF-1, produced by the liver in response to growth hormone and insulin, are growth factors that stimulate the growth of cells, including malignant cells.

Exercise may also improve immune function and the ability of your body to fight off cancer while taming inflammation, an overreaction of the immune system. Low-grade inflammation and insulin resistance are both linked with a higher risk of malignancy. Exercise ca also help you maintain a healthy body weight. That’s important since obesity is a risk factor for a number of cancers.

Staying a Healthy Body Weight

As mentioned, obesity increases the risk of a variety of cancer. Some of these include cancer of the colon, rectum, breast (postmenopausally), uterus, kidney, thyroid, gallbladder, pancreas, and esophagus. Based on findings from the 2014 Cancer Progress Report, obesity is a contributor to almost one-quarter of cancer cases. Plus, obesity is linked with decreased survival for adults who do get cancer. So, obesity may increase cancer risk AND worsens the prognosis of existing cancer.

How does obesity fuel cancer? Being overweight or obese exposes your body to higher insulin levels. Plus, women who are obese often have increased levels of hormones like estrogen that stimulate the growth of breast cancer and uterine cancer cells. High body fat is also linked with inflammation, another factor that can fuel cancer growth.

Cancer Prevention through Lifestyle

The good news is lifestyle can lower the risk of developing cancer. Here’s the bad news. In this study, only 18% of women and 25% of men lived these lifestyle factors. In other words, it’s common to fall short in at least one of these areas – gaining too much weight, skipping on exercise, drinking too much alcohol, or not kicking the smoking habit. On the other hand, if you do all of these things, your risk of developing cancer should be lower than the average population. Who can argue with that?

The Bottom Line

This study highlights the fact that how we live matters when it comes to cancer risk. Doing these things is no guarantee you won’t get cancer but it certainly makes it less likely. Making these lifestyle changes may lower your risk for other health problems as well.

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