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9 things you can do to prevent cancer

Jennifer Billock writer headshot By | February 6, 2020
Medically reviewed by Anis Rehman, MD

About 1.8 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer every year. It’s a sobering statistic, but thankfully, you don’t necessarily have to be another number.

“One of the most stubborn pre-conceptions is that getting cancer is a matter of chance, or genetics and chance, and that nothing can be done to reduce the risk of ever being diagnosed with cancer,” says Richard Wender, MD, chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society. “In fact, each of us can take steps to reduce our risk.”

How to prevent cancer

If you begin these cancer prevention tactics now and maintain a healthy lifestyle, you may be less likely to get it in the future—up to 40% less likely, says Dr. Wender.

1. Quit smoking. 

The most important thing people can do if they want to reduce cancer risk is to quit smoking. One study found that dropping the habit before age 40 can reduce your chance of dying from a smoking-related disease by 90%. Tobacco use and tobacco products are inextricably linked with a number of cancer types, like throat and lung cancer, so stub out that cigarette and avoid secondhand smoke. 

That may go for e-cigarettes, too, suggests Jennifer Ligibel, MD, chair of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s cancer prevention committee. Overall, not much long-term research has covered the topic, but e-cigarettes and vaping are already embroiled in health controversies—so it’s safest to just stay away.

2. Drink less.

Limit your alcohol intake. It’s “perhaps one of the most important carcinogens to think about,” Dr. Wender explains. “Alcohol is third on the list of things that cause cancer that can be prevented.” Drinking too much increases the risk for head, neck, liver, and breast cancer.

3. Get vaccinated.

Don’t skimp on treatments that can help protect you later in life. Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, like Gardasil 9, “have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, anal cancer, cancer of the penis, and possibly certain types of head and neck cancer,” Dr. Ligibel says. You’ll also want to get a hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccine; the illness can lead to liver cancer.

RELATED: Should you get the hepatitis A vaccine? 

4. Change your diet.

Though specific diets have not been proven to decrease the risk of cancer, Dr. Wender notes it’s important to follow a healthy diet all the same. Keep it rich in fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, lean meat, and low-fat dairy. Limit processed meats, excessive sugar, smoked foods, and red meat. A report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that consuming a lot of processed meats can slightly increase cancer risk. The main health benefit of eating a plant-based diet, low in high-calorie foods is that it helps to moderate your weight and prevent obesity, which increases the risk of cancer.

Weight loss, even modest amounts, can help prevent cancer before it shows up. Most importantly, though, “don’t feel guilty or blame yourself about weighing more than you’d like,” Dr. Wender says. “This is tough work and a constant challenge and reflects our environment around food.” 

5. Exercise more.

It can sound daunting, but research shows that exercise can lower your risk of 13 types of cancer. Start by adding just a bit of extra movement into your daily routine, then increase your physical activity from there.

“Here’s the good news,” Dr. Wender says. “No one type of exercise is any more effective than another. What matters is finding the type of exercise you like and engaging regularly.”

That means trying to get some in every day, whether it’s 30 minutes of intense exercise five days a week, or even just an hour-long brisk walk.

Maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise not only puts you at a lower risk of cancer, but it also boosts your immune system to fight other illnesses.

6. Wear sunscreen.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., so avoid tanning beds and don’t be shy about slathering on SPF. Dr. Ligibel says to start young as SPF is especially effective at preventing cancer when you begin wearing it early in life. Wearing SPF 15 daily reduces your risk of squamous cell carcinoma by approximately 40%, and your risk of melanoma by 50%, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

7. Get regular checkups and screenings.

Early detection is key to both avoiding and successfully treating cancer, so be sure to go for your annual physical and also stop in if something seems out of the ordinary. You should proactively get cancer screenings, too. Some can actually help stop the disease. 

Colorectal cancer screening, for example, detects precancerous polyps so they can be removed. Cervical and breast cancer screenings can also detect precancerous changes that can then be treated before they become cancer. Check with your healthcare provider about which tests you need, and how often. It can vary based on your family and medical history.

8. Be aware of your environment.

Your home and work environments may put you more at risk for cancer than you might expect.

“Every home should be checked for radon,” Dr. Wender says. “Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer behind tobacco exposure.”

Testing is easy and doesn’t cost much; find out how to test your home from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, your work and your hobbies can be risk factors, too. Do they involve regular exposure to chemicals? If so, find out if they’re carcinogens and how to limit your exposure.

9. Know your family history.

Cancer can be hereditary, so it’s important to know if your family’s medical history puts you at a high risk for cancer. You’ll learn what types you may be at risk for, and when to start getting screening tests. If you have a family history, you may want to start certain tests sooner. Even with no genetic risk, Dr. Wender says, everyone should start getting cancer screenings around age 45. Your primary care physician can explain which tests are recommended.

Cancer prevention organizations

If you’re concerned about your cancer risk, follow these organizations: 

They will keep you up-to-date on new research and guidelines for helping you stay cancer-free.