Do these ten things now to slash your risk of developing cancer later in life.
Sarah DiGiulio 1 / 12
You're young, healthy, and wondering why the c-word deserves a spot on your list of concerns. While it's true that cancer usually strikes later in life, mounting evidence suggests that the healthy habits you develop now are your best defense against developing the disease down the line. Estimates suggest that as many as a third of the most common cancers in the U.S. can be prevented by following cancer-prevention guidelines—i.e. maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, using sunscreen, and not smoking.
For a run-down of the top guidelines that guys like you should be aware of, we chatted with Alpa Patel, Ph.D., strategic director of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study-3, who outlined 10 ways to stock your anti-cancer arsenal and keep long-term risk low.
Whether you’re hitting the slopes or the sand, use protection. The sun's rays can burn skin in just 15 minutes—even on cloudy days, and especially when you’re near water, snow, and sand—surfaces that reflect and intensify the sun's UV rays. Be especially vigilant during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) when rays are strongest and most damaging. If you can't cover up with long sleeves or pants, slather on SPF 15 or higher. Look for the words "broad-spectrum" on the bottle—this means the product blocks both UVA and UVB rays. And don’t forget shades to keep eyes protected, too.
Put simply, the more you move, the better, says Patel. Research shows that getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise (brisk walking) or 75 minute of vigorous exercise (sweat-dripping cardio)—or a combo—throughout the week helps lower cancer risk down the road. A recent study of more than 17,000 men (one of the biggest to date) specifically linked fitness to lower rates of lung and colorectal cancer, as well as higher survival rates in men who had lung, prostate, or colorectal cancer.
Current guidelines also suggest that extended sitting—at the office, watching TV, or driving—can also raise cancer risk, regardless of whether you exercise.
Independent of how much time you clock at the gym, keeping your weight in check is another way to cut cancer risk. Being overweight or obese (having a BMI of 25 or higher) is linked to higher risk of several cancers including colon, kidney, pancreas, liver, and types of lymphoma and myeloma—regardless of physical activity level or diet.
Both physical activity and a healthy weight play a role in improving insulin sensitivity, glucose metabolism, and immune response, all of which are linked to cancer, Patel says. But neither cancels out the other—people with BMIs greater than 25 who do exercise and people with BMIs below 25 who do not exercise have both been shown to have higher cancer risk than those who have lower BMIs and exercise regularly.
The more the better—and the more colorful, the better. Veggies and fruit are the body’s top sources of antioxidants, chemicals that help prevent cancer-causing particles (free radicals) from damaging the body. Research has yet to show whether antioxidant supplements effectively prevent cancer. Instead, experts agree that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is the ideal way to stock up on cancer-fighters like beta-carotene (get it from carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, apricots, and green peppers), lycopene (get it from tomatoes), and vitamins C (in cantaloupe, citrus, pineapple, broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers) and E (leafy greens).
American Cancer Society guidelines recommend eating fruits and vegetables as part of every meal, eating whole fruits and vegetables, and choosing 100% juice (if you drink it). Aim for at least two and a half cups of a variety of produce a day—fresh, frozen, or canned will do the trick.
Opt for fish, poultry, and beans rather than red meats (beef, lamb, and pork). Research shows that the higher saturated fat content in red meat heightens cancer risk, and that cooking meat until it's well done may release certain carcinogens, says Patel. Studies also suggest that certain compounds in red meat damage the colon, which could potentially cause colorectal cancers. If eating red meat, choose lean cuts and smaller portions, and avoid frying or charbroiling it.
Also avoid processed meats, anything that’s been cured, salted, or smoked (i.e. ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, sausage, and hot dogs). Adding preservatives during the curing, salting, or smoking process can create carcinogens. The occasional stadium brat is probably OK, but keep it a splurge—not a standing order.
And not just when you’re brown-bagging your lunch… In addition to bread, pick whole-grain pastas, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, barley, rye, and quinoa over white starches and refined carbs. Along with being part of a high-fiber diet that helps you maintain a healthy weight, whole grains are rich in antioxidants and other plant compounds including phenols, lignans, and saponins, all of which have been linked to lower cancer risk. Some evidence also suggests that the dietary fiber in whole grains also helps decrease colorectal cancer risk.
Charring, burning, or grilling meat, poultry, or fish in too much heat can cause heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to form. These compounds have been shown to increase risk of stomach and colorectal cancers. But no need to avoid the grill entirely—just avoid a “blackened” dinner. Lightly oil the grill to keep charred bits from sticking to meat, lower the grill temp, and clean the grill after each use to prevent damaging chemicals from building up. Also try using a marinade, like vinegar or lemon juice, or herb rubs with rosemary, mint, sage, and tarragon—all have been shown to reduce HCA formation.
Current guidelines allow for the occasional kick-back, but avoid more than two drinks a day, says Patel. Infrequent drinkers have lower cancer risks compared with those who drink, and alcohol consumption is a proven risk factor for head and neck, liver, and esophageal cancers.
Why? The body’s natural process of metabolizing alcohol causes cell damage that heightens cancer risk. Plus, studies suggest that alcohol blocks the body’s ability to absorb cancer-fighting nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E.
Avoid tobacco in any form—that means cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuffs, and hookah in addition to cigarettes. Tobacco has more than 7,000 chemicals, 250 of which are known to be harmful, and 13 of which have been linked to cancer. What's more, tobacco smoke is harmful to smokers and nonsmokers alike. Smoking is a proven cause of lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreatic, and stomach cancers, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.Top 5 Quit-Smoking Apps >>>
10. Screen Right
Routine health exams—depending on age—typically include exams for thyroid, oral, and skin cancers, as well as cancers in the lymph nodes or testes. But 50 is the magic screening age for men. Starting at that age, men should get regular colonoscopies every 10 years or a CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every five years.
Guidelines also recommend that at age 50 men begin talking to their doctors about whether or not to test for prostate cancer. Do it sooner if you have a family history of the disease.
…On whether or not the following are linked to cancer. But, until there’s conclusive evidence, there’s enough early research to suggest these do’s and don’ts are worth a shot.
• Eat garlic: Research suggests a compound in garlic—allium—could lower risk of colorectal cancer.
• Up your intake of omega-3s: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and some nuts and seeds, have been shown to help prevent and slow cancer growth in animals, though evidence in humans is not yet established.
• Limit cell phone time: Some evidence suggests it's possible (though far from proven, Patel notes) that too much cell phone use could increase cancer risk. Studies have shown that the body can absorb the radio energy cell phones emit, but the jury’s still out on whether or not that energy can be harmful.