Cancer-proof your life: Seven ways to ward off cancer

August 19, 2010 By Peter D. Byeff, M.D.

Your lifestyle — how you live, what you eat and how active you are — plays a large role in whether you may develop cancer. Each year, 565,000 Americans die from cancer, and one-third of these deaths are linked to bad habits, poor diet, physical inactivity and being overweight. By following these guidelines, you can reduce your cancer risk:

1. Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. Smoking causes 87 percent of all lung cancer deaths and most cancers of the larynx, mouth, pharynx, esophagus and bladder. Tobacco smoke contains thousands of chemicals, including 60 already known to cause cancer. Kicking the habit decreases your risk; the sooner you quit, the better.

2. Lose excess weight. Being overweight increases your cancer risk, especially breast cancer in postmenopausal women. The American Cancer Society advises aiming for a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9.

3. Get moving. People who work out regularly — at moderate to vigorous intensity — have a lower risk for colon and breast cancer. Exercise reduces cancer risk by keeping weight in check and influencing hormone levels and the immune system. Aim for at least 30 minutes (60 minutes is preferable) of moderate activity daily.

4. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants like vitamins C and E, carotenoids and other phytochemicals abundant in fruits and vegetables protect body tissues from change or damage that may occur during metabolism. More colorful produce tends to have greater cancer-fighting nutrients. Each day, you should eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables.

5. Reduce your meat. Cutting back on red meats like beef, pork and lamb and processed meats like bologna, hot dogs and luncheon meats may reduce prostate and colon cancer risk.

6. Limit alcohol. Drinking alcoholic beverages increases the risk for many cancers, including liver, breast, mouth, esophagus and larynx. If you drink, limit your cocktails to no more than two a day for men or one a day for women. Even a few drinks a week, however, are linked with breast cancer in women, especially women who don't consume enough folate.

7. Protect your skin. A suntan is a sign of skin damage, the type that leads to skin cancer. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 every day, wear protective clothing and avoid tanning booths or beds.

Assess your risk

Other factors, such as your family history or a virus like hepatitis or human papillomavirus, increase your cancer risk. Knowing your risk factors may lead to other cancer-prevention measures. For example, a strong family history of breast cancer may prompt you to consider genetic testing, get more frequent screenings, avoid hormone therapy, give up alcohol or take tamoxifen. To help you collect information about your family history risk, check out the U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative at

Peter D. Byeff, M.D., is a hematologist/oncologist and medical director of The Hospital of Central Connecticut's George Bray Cancer Center. Visit our Cancer Center.