Lifestyle strategies for cancer prevention

  • Published
  • By Guy Leahy
  • Health Promotion Program

Improvements in screening and treatment of cancer have resulted in significant reductions of cancer deaths in the United States. 

From 1995-2015 for men and from 1992-2015 for women, the number of cancer deaths averted was 1,639,100 for men and 739,500 for women.

These reductions are primarily due to declines in lung, colorectal and prostate cancer for men, and declines in lung and colorectal cancer for women.

Despite these improvements, cancer is still the second-leading cause of death in the United States, with 595,930 deaths recorded in 2015.

What are some lifestyle strategies for reducing cancer risk? First and foremost, tobacco cessation. Cigarette smoking is responsible for 80 percent of all lung cancer cases, lung cancer would be rare in the absence of cigarettes. The risk of at least seven additional cancer types (larynx, oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, bladder and cervix) is heightened by smoking. Smokeless tobacco use causes cancers of the esophagus, pancreas and oral cavity, it’s not safer. Reductions of cigarette smoking have been the primary driver in the dramatic reduction in lung cancer deaths over the past 20 years. Exposure to second-hand and third-hand smoke also increases risk for cancer.

Physical activity can lessen cancer risk. The strongest evidence is for colon, endometrial and breast cancers; the evidence is less consistent for lung, ovary, prostate, kidney and stomach cancers. Adults should engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise at least five days per week. Higher amounts (45-60 minutes per day) may produce greater risk reduction.

For colon, endometrial and breast cancer, physical activity may reduce risk by 20 to 30 percent. Nearly all of the research relating physical activity to cancer risk has used aerobic exercise; resistance training has not been studied to any extent. The exercise can be any mode (running, walking, swimming, cycling, etc). It’s important to note that sedentary behavior, independent of physical activity, is associated with increased cancer risk.

One way that physical activity lowers cancer risk is by helping to control overweight/obesity. Excess body fat is associated with increased risk of developing 13 cancer types (thyroid, gallbladder, upper stomach, liver, pancreas, kidneys, ovaries, colon and rectum, breast in post-menopausal women, myeloma, meningioma, brain/spinal cord, and esophagus).

Anywhere from four percent to 38 percent of these cancers can be attributed to excess body fat. Approximately two out of three Americans are either overweight or obese. Over the last decade, cancers associated with excess body fat have increased by 7 percent, whereas cancers not linked to overweight/obesity are going down.

Diet also influences cancer risk. Recommended diets are high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes; limiting consumption of red meat (beef, pork and ham) and avoiding processed meats. It is recommended to limit foods with a high salt content, and avoid sugary drinks and energy-dense processed foods. High consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains has been associated with decreased risk of digestive/upper respiratory cancers, whereas high consumption of processed/salty meats has been associated with the development of stomach and colorectal cancers. Diets high in sugar are linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

Limiting alcohol is also recommended. Alcohol amplifies the risk of seven cancer types, even at low to moderate intakes. If alcohol is consumed, limit intake to two drinks/day for men, and one drink/day for women.

Last, but not least, to lower skin cancer risk avoid excess sun exposure. Recommended methods include the use of sunscreen, clothing such as large-brimmed hats and sunglasses; limit exposure during peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and avoid the use of sun/tanning beds. It’s important to wear protective clothing/sunscreen even while driving, because the side/rear windows are not shielded from cancer-causing UVA radiation; the front windshield is treated to block UVA.

February is National Cancer Prevention Month; it’s as good a time as any to take action to diminish your cancer risk.

For more information, contact Health Promotions Flight at 846-1186 or 846-1483.

Guy Leahy is the Kirtland Air Force Base Health Promotion Flight coordinator. He holds a master’s degree in physical education from Western Washington University. He is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.