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10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Help Prevent Cancer

New 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 new guidelines published Tuesday 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. Factor in smoking, which causes about 19 percent of cancers, and at least 42 percent of the over 1.8 million new cancer cases expected in 2020 could be prevented with changes in behavior.

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"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), the organization that published the updated guidelines in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Here are 10 ways you can reduce your risk for cancer, based on ACS recommendations:

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. 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

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Alcohol consumption is the cause of at least seven different types of cancer, including cancer of the pharynx, larynx and liver. Because of this, the ACS says “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

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Both 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.”

4. Maintain a healthy weight and avoid weight gain

Science is shedding new light on the relationship between cancer and excess body weight, which is responsible for about 11 percent of cancer cases in women and about 5 percent in men in the U.S. 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, including those of the gallbladder, liver, kidney, pancreas, breast and more.

5. Adopt a healthy eating pattern

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

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

Both categories are associated with risk of weight gain and obesity, “which itself is considered a cause of 13 types of cancers,” the new guidelines note.

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 latest 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, esophagus and kidney cancer.

9. Stay on top of cancer screenings

Also not included in the new 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. If your routine screenings have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, talk to your doctor about rescheduling your appointment. Makaroff also points to resources on the ACS website that can help you weigh the risks of resuming routine screenings.

10. Advocate for community action

In addition to individual actions, communities play an important role in promoting cancer-prevention behaviors. 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.

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