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Cancer prevention: 5 tips to reduce your risk


I hear all the time about health foods and other things that are supposed to prevent cancer. Do any of them actually work?


Yes, the good news is there are several easily actionable steps you can take that do make a difference. When doctors speak of 'cancer prevention,' though, it is important to remember that we are referring to 'reducing risk.' It's a matter of probability: Risk reduction is about taking action to reduce or “cut down” the probability that you personally will developing cancer. Unfortunately, even a person at low risk may get cancer, just as a person at high risk may not.

Low risk does not mean that you won’t get cancer, it means that the chances of getting it are small. High risk means that your chances may be higher, but it does not mean that you will develop cancer.

Risk can be increased or decreased by the lifestyle choices you make or the kind of environment you live and work in.

1. get active

We at IHM are always recommending physical activity. This is not to scare you or make you feel badly for not doing enough, but rather to highlight one of the best ways to prevent for a wide range of diseases. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your personal risk of cancer (including bladder, breast, colon, uterine, esophageal, renal/kidney, leukaemia and stomach – that's a long list!).

Aim for 30 minutes per day of moderately intense activity, 5 days a week (that leaves optional 2 rest days). That's a total of 150 min/week. But remember: some is always better than none! If you don't have 30 minutes, a 10-minute brisk walk is better than no walk.

Some is always better than none.

2. Eat A Healthy Diet

Abundant scientific evidence shows that making healthy food choices reduces your risk of cancer. Consider these guidelines:

  • Rule #1: aim for high fibre. If you want one dietary rule-of-thumb, base your diet in foods that are high in fibre. If you do, chances are you'll be eating a healthy diet. This applies especially to your sources of carbohydrates: Choose whole grain pasta, brown rice, and beans.

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. This follows from rule #1. Half your mealtime plate should be fruits and vegetables. Carrots, celery, and squash are good, but among the vegetables should also be leafy greens.

  • Limit processed foods, especially processed meat. Nutrition science has progressed much over the years. One lesson learned is not to focus so much on high-fat vs. low-fat, high-carb vs. low carb. What matters more is limiting processed foods. Diets high in processed meats such as cold cuts, bacon, and fast food, for example, increase your risk of cancer (including colorectal, lung, esophagus, and liver). Think of processed foods as 'sometimes foods': You can eat them on occasion, not everyday. How do you spot processed foods? One easy way is to look at the sodium (salt) content per serving: If it's high (e.g. >500mg/serving), it's processed

  • If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation. Most people are unaware that alcohol is a carcinogen — which means that alcohol can contribute to causing cancer. The risk of various cancers (e.g. breast, colon, lung, kidney and liver) increases with the amount of alcohol you drink, and the length of time you've been drinking regularly. If you do drink, stick to 1 or at most 2 drinks on a given day.

Read more about healthy eating in the Canada Food Guide or Harvard University's Healthy Eating Plate.

3. Protect Yourself From The Sun

Skin cancer is one of the most common kinds of cancer, and one of the most preventable.

  • Avoid midday sun (10 am – 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest)

  • Stay in the shade,

  • Wear sunglasses and a large-brimmed hat

  • If you work in a job that requires you to be in the midday sun, consider buying athletic UV-blocking arm sleeves.

  • Lather on the sunscreen – use generous amounts and reapply often!

It is good to be aware of what melanomas (the deadliest of the skin cancers) look like, so you can spot it early on yourself or a family member. The earlier it's detected, the more likely it's treatable. Check out American Academy of Dermatology's pictorial guide to the 'ABCDEs' of melanoma.

4. Get Screened And Take Early Detection Seriously

Cancer screening is key. Unfortunately, we can't screen for every type of cancer, because not all cancers behave the same. We screen for types of cancer that (1) are common, (2) are readily detectable in the presymptomatic phase (where you feel well and wouldn't know you have cancer), and (3) are easier or better to treat when caught early.

The specifics of cancer screening guidelines vary from place-to-place, but the basics are generally the same:

  • Colon cancer screening, usually beginning age 50. This is done with a stool test (every 2-3 years) or colonoscopy (every 10 years). The aim is to catch colon cancers before they actually become cancerous – when they are pre-cancerous polyps. When caught at this stage, they are very easy to treat, so don't put off this screening test!

  • Breast cancer screening (mammograms) every 2 years, usually beginning age 50.

  • Cervical cancer tests, beginning in early 20s (only for sexually active women)

What about prostate cancer? Many physicians don't routinely screen for it anymore, because our screening test (PSA, or prostate specific antigen) is not very accurate. And even those diagnosed with low-risk prostate cancer may not need invasive treatment.

Note: Screening may begin earlier for various reasons (e.g. if you have first-degree relative who had the same type of cancer, or if you have another disease that puts you at higher risk of specific types of cancer).

5. Get Immunized

Certain viral infections can cause cancer, and you can protect yourself by getting vaccinated.

Hepatitis B – this disease increases the risk of developing liver cancer. Hepatitis B occurs endemically in many parts of the world. For that reason, vaccination is the gold standard of care for overseas personnel.

HPV vaccine (human papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. The vaccine is available to both men and women age 26 or younger.

Disclaimer: the information provided in this article is not a substitute for individualized medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us or your primary healthcare professional.

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