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10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Help Prevent Cancer

Expert guidelines call for more exercise, fewer hot dogs, and ideally no alcohol


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Get more exercise; cut down on red and processed meats; avoid alcohol: These are key steps you can take to lower your risk for cancer, according to the latest guidelines, published in 2020, from the American Cancer Society that underscore the importance of physical activity and healthy eating habits in cancer prevention.

With excess body weight, physical inactivity, poor nutrition and alcohol responsible for about 18 percent of all new cancer cases in the U.S., experts say food and exercise are two weapons individuals have in the fight against cancer — the country's second-leading cause of death.

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Factor in smoking, which causes about 19 percent of cancers, and at least 42 percent of cancer cases could be prevented with changes in behavior, researchers say.

"Adopting a healthy lifestyle … can make a big difference in reducing the risk; it's not insignificant,” says Laura Makaroff, senior vice president of prevention and early detection at the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Here are 10 ways you can reduce your risk for cancer, based on ACS recommendations, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians:

1. Aim for 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week

Guidelines from 2012 called for a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise each week. But now, experts say that more is better, and that 300 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity activity (or just a little more than 40 minutes per day) is “optimal” when it comes to reducing cancer risks.

If more-intense workouts are your thing, strive for a weekly total of 75 to 150 minutes. Physical inactivity is linked to a number of cancers, including colon, female breast and endometrial (lining of the uterus) cancers.

2. Avoid alcohol

Nearly 750,000 cases of cancer diagnosed worldwide in 2020 — or approximately 4 percent — can be attributed to alcohol, according to new research from the World Health Organization.

Cancers of the esophagus, liver and, in women, breast, were among the most common cancers linked to alcohol consumption, the researchers found. And these cancers didn’t just occur in heavy drinkers; even light and moderate drinkers were affected. The research was published in 2021 in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

The ACS says when it comes to cancer prevention, “it is best not to drink alcohol.” Those who choose to drink should have no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

3. Limit or avoid red and processed meats

Both red and processed meats have been linked to an increased risk for cancer. Processed meats (think: hot dogs, sausages and bacon) were even classified as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer) by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015.

Because of this, the ACS recommends opting for protein sources such as fish, poultry and beans over red meat. Individuals who consume processed meat products should “do so sparingly, if at all.”

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4. Maintain a healthy weight and avoid weight gain

Science is shedding new light on the relationship between cancer and excess body weight. More than 684,000 obesity-associated cancers occur in the United States each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including more than 210,000 among men and 470,000 among women. The vast majority of these obesity-related cancers (90 percent) occur in adults 50 and older.

That is why the latest guidelines emphasize that individuals keep their weight “within the healthy range and avoid weight gain” throughout adulthood. Doing so can reduce one's risk for a number of cancers — 13 have been linked to being overweight or having obesity — including those of the gallbladder, liver, kidney, pancreas, breast and more.

5. Adopt a healthy eating pattern

Rather than focusing on specific nutrients, the guidelines stress the importance of adopting “healthy dietary patterns” rich in plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables and legumes) and whole grains for cancer prevention.

6. Cut out sugar-sweetened beverages and heavily processed foods

Mounting scientific evidence points to a link between these two food categories and cancer risk.

A 2023 study published in the journal JAMA found that drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day was associated with a “significantly higher incidence” of liver cancer.

What’s more, new research published in the journal eClinical Medicine found a link between increased consumption of ultra-processed foods and cancer risks, especially ovarian cancer in women. Another 2023 study published in Clinical Nutrition linked highly processed foods with an increased risk for colorectal, breast and pancreatic cancers.

Sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods can also contribute to weight gain, another known risk factor for cancer.

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7. Limit sedentary behavior

Conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease have been associated with prolonged sitting time, and now experts are noting “accumulating” evidence linking sedentary behavior and cancer risk, separate from physical inactivity. Avoid sitting, lying down and watching television or other forms of screen-based entertainment for prolonged periods.

8. Don't smoke

While this recommendation is not part of the 2020 guidelines focused on diet and exercise, it is a “super-important” part of cancer prevention, the ACS's Makaroff says. Smoking accounts for about 30 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S., including about 80 percent of lung cancer deaths, and is a risk factor for a number of other cancers, including mouth, esophageal and kidney cancers.

9. Stay on top of cancer screenings

Also not included in the latest 2020 guidelines, but equally important in cancer prevention, is screening for the disease. Cancer screenings can detect abnormal cells before they become a problem. They can also find cancer early, when it may be easier to treat.

Unsure whether you're due for one? Check out what screenings are recommended and when you should be getting them on the ACS's website.

10. Advocate for community action

In addition to individual actions, communities play an important role in promoting cancer-prevention behaviors, the ACS guidelines say. Policies that make healthy foods more affordable and accessible, for example, make it easier for people to adopt better eating habits. Similarly, building safe and inviting access to parks, sidewalks and walking paths provides opportunities for physical activity.

Editor's Note: This story, first published in June 9, 2020, has been updated to reflect new research findings.

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