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As scientists search for a cure, cancer prevention remains the best safeguard. There are lifestyle changes that can help, but some risk factors may be out of our hands.
“Certain things [like age, genes and occupational hazards] cannot be controlled, but there are many things we can do to lower our risk,” says Wasif Saif, MD, MBBS, the deputy physician in chief and director of medical oncology at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute.
However, there are specific measures you can take to reduce your risk for developing cancer.
It can be difficult to find definitive information on the best prevention methods, and you may read conflicting information on recommendations. For example, some headlines imply a glass of wine per day can help prevent cancer, while others say it increases risk.
It’s important to research peer-reviewed journals and speak to a healthcare provider so you can make informed decisions.
“Understanding the facts and the basis of the recommendation helps you make good decisions,” says Jack Jacoub, MD, a medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Read on to examine the evidence on claims about cancer prevention.
The claim that drinking wine prevents cancer might sound too good to be true. But is it? It’s complicated.
A 2018 research review suggested red wine microconstituents, such as polyphenols, may provide protection from several cancer types, such as prostate and colon cancers.
Though some evidence does indicate that wine may help reduce cancer risk, experts caution against using it as a mitigation device.
“I wouldn’t drink for the sake of reducing cancer risk,” Jacoub says. “The jury is out on it.”
That doesn’t mean you have to swear off the occasional glass of wine with dinner, though.
“Anything you do, do in moderation, and recognize the things that may be more proven to reduce risk, like weight reduction and not smoking,” Jacoub says.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol consumption as one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men.
Evidence is mixed on whether wine can reduce cancer risk. Experts don’t recommend it for reducing risk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months.
These recommendations are mostly for the baby’s benefit. In the first year of life, children who drink human milk are less likely to have health issues, such as respiratory or gastrointestinal infections.
Breastfeeding also boasts long-term benefits for the person lactating as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk, though how often a person lactates may play a role.
Jacoub points out that less estrogen exposure correlates to a reduced risk of breast cancer.
Reduced estrogen levels also help reduce the risk for endometrial cancer.
Still, the disease-fighting benefits appear to level off around 6 to 9 months for endometrial cancer.
People produce less estrogen when lactating, which may lead to a decrease in cancer risk.
It’s debated whether cancer risk is an occupational hazard for some jobs. For example, welders are exposed to ultraviolet rays, which is a risk factor for skin cancer.
“If you inhale a carcinogen, a cancer-causing molecule, it’s going to get metabolized and excreted through the urine,” says Saif. “It goes through the kidneys, urinary tract, and bladder. All this exposure of carcinogens to the urinary tract, over time, can cause cancer transformation and development.”
Still, you can take measures to reduce your risk. Saif suggests following safety practices, such as wearing a mask, to reduce the possibility of inhaling a carcinogen.
“Go to your primary care physician, and talk about signs and symptoms with your doctor,” says Saif. “Drink a lot of fluids like water. It can have a diuretic effect and let carcinogens out more quickly.”
Wearing a mask, staying hydrated, and discussing your work environment with your primary care physician can help you reduce your cancer risk.
Experts say there are a few reasons why exercise is one of the best ways to prevent cancer. Most of them circle back to the fact that working out helps keep a person at a healthy weight. The American Cancer Society notes that about 16 percent of cancer deaths in the United States are related to excess body weight.
“Obesity is a risk factor,” Jacoub says. “It could be the impact of inflammation, which can drive cancer development through oxidation. It can also impact hormonal balance, which increases hormone-driven cancers like breast cancer.”
If you’re not very active now, you don’t need to go from zero to 60 minutes per day of exercise to reap the benefits. The American Cancer Society suggests getting at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise each week.
“You don’t have to be a marathon runner to be physically active,” Saif says. “Even just walking 30 minutes a day during your lunch break 5 days a week is good.”
Saif suggests consulting with a physician before starting any workout programs.
“It is important to be seen by your doctor first so you can be cleared of risk factors,” he says. “Start slowly. Don’t go to the gym and spend 3 hours there. Find something you like so you can maintain it.”
Even small amounts of exercise can help prevent cancer.
Work stress can wreak havoc on your mental health, upping your risk for anxiety, depression, and burnout.
It may also increase your risk for colorectal, lung, and esophagus cancers, according to a
“Everybody has a different way of dealing with stress,” he says. “People can develop certain behaviors… like overeating, drinking alcohol, and smoking.”
You may have had this experience at the grocery store: Regular bananas on one shelf and organic on another. They look the same, but organic is more expensive. Is it worth it?
If you’re looking to reduce your cancer risk, it probably is. Organic foods are less likely to be grown with hormones, pesticides, or antibodies. A
“Foods grown without these chemicals are better for your health,” Saif says. “It’s common sense.”
Saif says it’s OK if organic food doesn’t fit your budget. You can still take steps to make sure you’re minimizing your intake of pesticides and harsh chemicals.
“Wash and scrub produce,” he says. “It removes surface bacteria and dirt.”
Buying organic or thoroughly washing and scrubbing produce can help reduce cancer risk.
There are certain risk factors for cancer that can’t be controlled, like genetics and work environment. However, you can take other steps to reduce risks.
Exercise and stress reduction can help prevent cancer. Breastfeeding also reduces estrogen production, which provides protection from some cancers. Opting for organic food also limits exposure to carcinogens.
The jury is still out on whether practices like drinking wine reduce risk. If you work in a field with a higher likelihood of cancer, take safety precautions like mask-wearing, and speak with your physician about your concerns.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.