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February 20, 2017

5 Easy Moves that Cut Your Risk of Cancer

by John Hastings

Cancer is Americans’ number-one health concern, but here’s some surprising news: You can do more than you may think to cut your risk, says Jane Carleton, MD, associate chief of clinical affairs at Northwell Health Cancer Institute and Monter Cancer Center. The World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about a third of cases of the most common cancers in the United States could be prevented by eating right, keeping at a healthy weight and staying active. And that figure doesn’t even take smoking into account! Almost nine out of ten cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking -- so if you smoke, the best thing you can do for yourself is to quit. Then check out Dr. Carleton’s top tips for reducing your risk of cancer.

1. Cook your own meals. When you prepare food at home using fresh ingredients, you’re much more likely to eat healthfully, says Dr. Carleton – so you’ll get the antioxidants and other protective nutrients that are naturally present in foods like whole grains and vegetables. What’s more, research suggests that limiting fast food and restaurant meals can help you control your weight. That matters, because being overweight raises your levels of estrogen and insulin, and these hormones can promote the growth of cancer.

2. Drink only in moderation. Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol -- about a drink a day for women, two for men -- seems to be fairly safe, and may actually offer some protection against heart disease. But down more than that on a regular basis and your cancer risk starts to climb. Averaging three or more drinks a day raises your risk of cancer of the neck, head, esophagus, liver, colon and breast. If you smoke and drink, the double whammy really drives your risk of certain cancers skyward.

3. Get tested for infections known to cause cancer. Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer and can trigger other kinds of cancer as well -- which is why experts recommend that children be vaccinated against HPV around age 12, and that anyone under 26 who hasn’t yet gotten the vaccine do so. Women should talk to their doctor about whether they should be screened for HPV when they get a Pap test.

HPV isn’t the only virus that can trigger cancer -- hepatitis B and C are also troublemakers, raising the risk of liver cancer. Partly because of this connection, infants in the U.S. are routinely vaccinated against hepatitis B. There’s no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are effective treatments, and experts are particularly eager to ensure that baby boomers get tested at least once for hepatitis C; they’re at highest risk of infection, possibly because the blood supply wasn’t screened for the virus until the early 1990s. So if you were born between 1945 and 1965, ask your doctor if you should be tested for this silent but potentially deadly liver infection.

4. Cover up. Even in winter, sun exposure can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. One of the most common types of cancer, this is also one of the easiest to avoid, says Dr. Carleton. “Use sunscreen, stay in the shade, wear a hat and cover up your arms and legs when you plan to be outdoors for long periods of time,” she advises. And don’t forget: Indoor tanning causes the same kind of skin damage, and cancer risk, as baking in the sun.

5. Visit your doctor regularly. “Your primary care physician can keep you up to date on necessary cancer screenings,” says Dr. Carleton. Your doctor will know when and how often you need to be tested given your habits and your family medical history, she adds. “We’re starting to individualize testing a bit more based on the patient’s risk profile.”