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Experts believe that one-third to one-half of all cancers can be prevented.
That's because there are certain things about our lifestyles—our daily habits—that can make us more likely to get cancer. Here are some steps you can take today to help prevent cancer:
- Quit smoking.
- Eat well.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- Stay active.
- Protect your skin.
- Drink alcohol wisely.
- Practice safer sex.
- Get regular checkups and screenings.
- Consider getting the HPV vaccine.
- Avoid toxins and other poisons at work and at home.
Your doctor may recommend other things based on your personal health history. For example, taking aspirin to prevent cancer may be a good idea for some people. But taking aspirin can have risks, too. So talk to your doctor about what cancer prevention tips are best for you.
When you quit smoking, you lower your chances of getting many types of cancer. Smoking makes you more likely to get cancers of the lung, bladder, kidneys, pancreas, cervix, mouth, esophagus, and throat.
Quitting is hard, but you can do it with the right amount of information and support. And there are several medicines that work well to help people quit for good. For information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
And for more help, see:
- Quitting Smoking: Getting Support.
- Quitting Smoking: Coping With Cravings and Withdrawal.
- Quitting Smoking: Should I Use Medicine?
Healthy food choices may help prevent cancer.
- Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes (for example, peas and beans), fish, poultry, and whole grains.
- Eat less red meat (beef, goat, lamb, and pork).
- Eat less processed meat (like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and some deli meats).
- Eat less food made from refined grains.
- Limit sweets.
Some scientists think certain natural health products might help prevent cancer, but there isn't enough research yet to prove that. If you want to take natural health products to prevent cancer, talk to your doctor about what is safe for you to take. Eating healthy foods is still the best way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
For ideas and tips, see:
- Quick Tips: Making Healthy Snacks.
- Quick Tips: Adding Fruits and Vegetables to Your Diet.
- Quick Tips: Making Fast, Healthy Meals.
Stay at a healthy weight
If you are very overweight, your chances of getting some forms of cancer are higher. And people whose extra fat is in the waist area may be at higher risk than people whose extra fat is in the hips or thighs.
Eating a healthy diet and being more active can help you reach a healthy weight. It can be hard to change habits around eating and being active. But you can do it by taking one step at a time. To learn how, see Getting to a Healthy Weight: Lifestyle Changes.
For more help making these changes, see:
Being active every day may prevent a number of cancers. And regular activity can help you get to and stay at a healthy weight, which can also help keep you from getting cancer.
Being physically active and getting enough sleep may work together to lower your cancer risk even more than activity alone, especially for women.
If you're not used to being active every day, think about taking small steps to change your habits. For more information, see:
- Fitness: Adding More Activity to Your Life.
- Fitness: Staying Active When You Have Young Children.
- Fitness: Choosing Activities That Are Right for You.
For more ideas and tips, see:
Protect your skin
Most skin cancer is caused by too much sun. Follow these steps to help prevent skin cancer:
- Stay out of the sun when you can, especially from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the hours of peak ultraviolet (UV) exposure.
- If you must go out in the sun, wear protective clothing, like a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants.
- On skin that isn't covered by clothing, use a sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Use it every day, all year, even when it is cloudy. Sunscreens that say "broad-spectrum" can protect the skin from ultraviolet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays.
- Wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
- Use lip balm or cream that has sun protection factor (SPF) to protect your lips from getting sunburned.
- Avoid tanning booths and sunlamps, which emit UV radiation and can cause skin damage.
For more information, see:
Drink alcohol wisely
If you drink alcohol, be aware that this may increase your risk for getting cancer.
Experts don't agree on how much is safe, but most agree that the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk is for cancer.
If you're a woman, think about limiting yourself to 1 drink a day. Drinking alcohol leads to extra estrogen in the body, which raises your risk for breast cancer. Studies show that for women who have a personal or family history of breast cancer, it is better to limit alcohol to less than 1 drink a day.
Practice safer sex
Practicing safer sex helps keep you from getting HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer in women. Safer sex includes using condoms and talking to every potential sex partner about his or her sexual history.
Get regular checkups and screenings
Visiting your doctor and dentist for regular checkups is good for your health. Your doctor can schedule regular screenings for various types of cancer, such as mammograms for breast cancer and stool tests for colon cancer.
Most screenings and checkups are to find cancer early, when it's easier to treat and may even be curable. But there are some things your doctor may recommend that can actually prevent certain cancers in the first place.
There are several types of screening tests for colon cancer. But only two of them can actually prevent cancer: colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy. These tests can find and remove polyps in the colon before they turn into cancer.
The HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine protects against HPV. HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are many types of HPV. Some types of the virus can cause cervical or oral cancer and some uncommon cancers, such as vaginal and anal cancer. The HPV vaccines protect against the most common HPV types that can cause serious problems.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends the vaccine for females and males ages 9 to 26. The vaccine may also be given to women ages 27 to 45 who didn't get the vaccine when they were younger. HPV vaccine recommendations may be different in your province or territory. Check with your doctor or provincial ministry of health to find the HPV vaccine recommendations in your area.
Avoid toxins and other poisons at work and at home
Living or working in unhealthy places can make you sick. Stay away from certain chemicals and other things in the environment that can increase your chances of getting cancer.
- Asbestos, an insulating material found in some older buildings, can cause tumours, lung cancer, and other diseases.
- Unsafe drinking water from a rural well polluted with pesticides or other poisons from a nearby industrial plant could cause allergies, cancer, or other problems.
- Take care when using cleaning products, paints, solvents, and pesticides. Try not to use them inside the house. If you must use them inside, use a fan to blow strong odours and fumes out of your home. Be aware that paint can release trace gases for months after you apply it. Try to use paint without volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
- Avoid being exposed to benzene, which can cause cancer. Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, stored fuels, paint supplies, and vehicle exhaust inside garages.
- Radon is a radioactive gas that causes cancer. Radon is found in rock, soil, water, some building materials, and natural gas. One survey of Canadian homes found that 1 in 1,000 homes had unsafe levels of radon.footnote 1 The Canadian Lung Association recommends that all homes be tested for radon levels. For more information, see the topic Radon.
- Dales R, et al. (2008). Quality of indoor residential air and health. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 179(2): 147–152.
Current as of: September 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Michael Seth Rabin MD - Medical Oncology
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
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