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  • Scripps Health

7 Behaviors That Can Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Cut your risk by avoiding certain behaviors and embracing others

The number of people dying from cancer has significantly declined over the past three decades, due largely to better treatments, early detection and preventive measures.

Yet cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States — and the numbers continue to be alarming.

This year, nearly two million new cancer cases and more than 600 deaths from cancer are expected to occur in the US, according to the American Cancer Society.

The numbers should not be so high.

Research shows we can do plenty to lower our risk of developing cancer. “It starts with knowing the risk factors, especially those that we can modify or change,” says Thomas Buchholz, MD, medical director of Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center and a Scripps Clinic radiation oncologist.

While some risk factors for cancer, such as family history, age and race or ethnicity, cannot be changed, many behaviors that put you at risk can be modified.

“A significant proportion of cancers could be prevented with lifestyle changes that improve your immune system function,” Dr. Buchholz says. “Our immune system is the first line of defense against cancer.”

Seven modifiable risk behaviors

According to a 2017 study, about 42 percent of cancer cases and 45 percent of cancer deaths were attributable to risk factors linked to lifestyle.

The top risk factors linked to lifestyle were:

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Excess body weight

  • Alcohol intake

  • Poor diet

  • Physical inactivity

  • Sun exposure

  • Not getting vaccinated for cancer-causing infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV)

Seven things you can do to lower your risk

Follow these tips to lower your risk of developing cancer.

1. Stay away from tobacco

If you smoke, stop. Avoid secondhand smoke as well.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the US, accounting for a quarter of cancer deaths. Smoking accounts for 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

“It’s never too late to quit smoking,” Dr. Buchholz says. “No matter how long you have smoked, quitting can reduce your risk.”

2. Get to a healthy weight

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cancers of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas and kidney, according to the American Cancer Society.

“If you’re trying to get your weight under control, a good first step is to watch portion sizes, especially of foods that are high in calories, fat and added sugars,” Dr. Buchholz says.

3. Limit how much alcohol you drink

If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. It can make a difference in your long-term health.

Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis, which increases the risk of liver cancer. Heavy or regular alcohol use also increases the risk of developing cancers of the oral cavity (mouth), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, breast, colon and rectum.

People who drink alcohol should limit it to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A serving of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (hard liquor).

“Remember, the more you drink, the higher your risk,” Dr. Buchholz says. “The risk is even greater when you drink alcohol and also use tobacco.”

4. Protect yourself from UV rays

Protect your skin. Many skin cancers are caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV radiation) from the sun.

“Go out but protect yourself from the sun as much as possible and avoid indoor tanning beds,” Dr. Buchholz says.