Cancer Prevention

By Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN
Created in partnership with Blue Shield of California

Cancer does not discriminate, affecting men and women equally. The most common cancers affect the breast, lung and bronchus, prostate, colon and rectum, skin, bladder, lymph and blood, kidney, endometrium, pancreas, thyroid, and liver cancer. Only one, prostate, is specific to men. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, approximately one in five cancers in the US for both men and women are related to being overweight, not getting enough physical activity, drinking alcohol, and/or poor nutrition. The good news is that risk can be reduced for many cancers that affect women by making simple lifestyle changes.

For cancers impacting women

Risk for breast cancer, which also affects a much smaller number of men, (less than 1% of all breast cancers occur in men), and cancers of the cervix, uterus and ovaries, can be reduced  by following these  healthy diet and lifestyle guidelines.

  • Include dairy products. Research suggests that diets high in dairy products and calcium reduce risk the of breast cancer in women both before and after menopause. Dairy products also help keep bones healthy and may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
  • Breastfeed if you can. Breastfeeding reduces risk of breast cancer in women and improves the health of babies by helping to protect them against overweight and obesity later in life, a risk factor for many types of cancer.
  • Avoid overweight/obesity or weight gain as an adult. Putting on pounds, especially after menopause, increases the chances of developing breast cancer. Being overweight and carrying extra weight around your waist adds to the risk of endometrial cancer. “Excess body fat, especially when it’s deep in the abdomen, actively secretes proteins that promote inflammation that can increase cancer risk,” explains Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND – Nutrition Advisor, American Institute for Cancer Research, and author of the Smart Bytes®
  • Avoid or limit alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol increase breast cancer risk. Drinking alcohol also is linked to cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus. Collins notes, “The latest review of research by AICR links alcohol with greater risk of 9 different cancers. Also, alcohol is a concentrated source of calories and can make weight control even more challenging, and affect risk even more.”
  • Talk to your doctor about any possible effects of birth control pills on your cancer risk. Some studies suggest that they may slightly increase the risk of breast and cervical cancers. On the other hand, they also may lower the chances of developing cancer of the ovaries or endometrium (the lining of the uterus). You and your doctor should weigh the benefits and risks of the type of pill you are considering.
  • Talk to your doctor if you are considering hormone replacement therapy (HRT). As with birth control pills, certain types of HRT slightly increase risk for some cancers – breast, endometrial and ovarian – but appear to lessen the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Visit the National Cancer Institute website for additional information.
  • Get mammograms. While they do not prevent breast cancer, they can spot tumors that are in the early stages of development.
  • Do regular breast self-exams. One study found that 25% of women with breast cancer report detecting the cancer themselves.
  • Avoid certain infections. Exposure to some strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV) can increase the risk of cervical cancer. Reduce contact with HPV by using barrier-type contraceptives and considering vaccination for pre-teen girls against HPV.
  • Be physically active. Physical activity of all types burns calories, can help you manage your weight, and may lower breast cancer risk. Aim for 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. Additionally, reduce the time you spend sitting.
  • Avoid smoking. Smoking increases risk of lung, colorectal, pancreatic and numerous other cancers.
  • Enjoy the sun safely. Avoid exposure to too much sunlight and avoid sunburn. Protect your skin by limiting time in the sun, particularly in the middle of the day; applying sunscreen often; and protecting your skin by wearing a hat and clothing over exposed parts of the body. Avoid tanning booths.

Diet Advice for all

Diet and lifestyle advice for cancer prevention is similar to advice for preventing other diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. The advice is simple, easy to understand, and applies to everyone –women, men, teens and children. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), around 40 percent of cancer cases could be prevented through controllable cancer risk factors – including diet, weight and physical inactivity. To see how you’re doing, visit the AICR Cancer Health Check. Follow the diet advice below to reduce your risk.

  • Plan your meals with more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods. The New American Plate developed by AICR suggests your plate consist of 2/3 (or more) vegetables, fruits, whole grains and/or beans (garbanzo, kidney, pinto and others) (in green below) and 1/3 (or less) animal protein, including red and processed meats (in orange below). The US Department of Agriculture MyPlate limits protein to ¼ of the plate (in purple below). No need to be precise. The key message is the same for both—more plant, less meat.
  • Reduce your portions. Portions in the US tend to be far too big, and eating more food (and calories) than the body needs adds extra pounds. For guidance on portion sizes, check out MyPlate for general information and read the back panel of the food package for specifics.
  • Enjoy a variety of fruits and vegetables, especially bright orange, red and green produce. They’ve been linked to prevention against colorectal and numerous other cancers, and they’re a top source of dietary fiber. Aim for 2 ½ cups total per day.
  • Limit high-calorie foods and drinks. Controlling the number of calories you eat is an important step toward achieving a healthy weight.