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During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama mentioned that Vice President Biden would be leading a national “Moonshot” initiative to fight and eliminate cancer. A total of $1 billion was given as the amount to jumpstart this project.
Admittedly, cancer is challenging; it is actually many diseases that are associated with scores of risk factors and causes, some of which we can control (e.g., environmental, lifestyle) and others we cannot (age, genetics). Yet preventing cancer is not necessarily rocket science. In fact, research has shown that the majority of risk of developing cancer—and I’m speaking of cancers in general—is associated with environmental and lifestyle factors.
In a January 2016 article appearing in Nature, the authors argued that less than 30 percent of a person’s lifetime risk of developing many common types of cancer are due to intrinsic risk factors (i.e., things you can’t change). The majority, therefore, are extrinsic factors.
Similarly, the authors of a JAMA Oncology named four intrinsic lifestyle factors that can change the risk of cancer: obesity, exercise, alcohol consumption, and smoking. These risks were defined as follows:
- Obesity: body mass index of no more than 27.5
- Exercise: 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity
- Alcohol consumption: average 1 drink daily for women and no more than 2 for men
- Smoking: having never smoked or having quit at least five years ago
The researchers evaluated data from nearly 90,000 women and more than 46,000 men and considered these four risk factors. They determined that the percentages of people who developed cancer and who might have avoided it if they had adopted the four low-risk behaviors were:
- 82% of women and 78% of men who got lung cancer
- 29% of women and 20% of men who got colon and rectal cancer
- 30% of both men and women who got pancreatic cancer
They also determined that nearly half of all cancer deaths might have been prevented if the low-risk factors had been followed.
Along those same lines, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has identified the percentage of certain cancers that could be prevented by making lifestyle changes. Half of colorectal cancers, for example, could be avoided by following a nutritious diet, exercising more, and avoiding overweight/obesity.
According to the AICR, these same three lifestyle factors alone—diet, exercise, and overweight—could prevent:
- 63% of esophageal cancers
- 63% of mouth, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancers
- 59% of endometrial cancers
- 33% of breast cancers
- 30% of liver cancers
- 24% of kidney cancers
- 22% of gallbladder cancers
- 19% of pancreatic cancers
- 11% of advanced prostate cancers
The five (diet, exercise, overweight, smoking, alcohol) extrinsic, modifiable lifestyle risk factors already named are important when addressing many of the more common cancers. Of the five, diet needs to be explained in more detail. Basically, a healthy diet consists of whole, natural foods, organic when possible, little to no added sugars, moderate salt intake, avoidance of trans fats, and low saturated fats. More specifically, experts recommend the following to help lower the risk of certain cancers:
- Moderate intake of foods rich in calcium and/or calcium supplements, as the mineral is a probable risk factor for prostate cancer
- Limit or avoid red meat and processed meats, as they have been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, and pancreatic cancer. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the cancer agency of WHO, red meat is classified as Group 2A (probable carcinogen) and processed meat is classified as Group 1 (carcinogen).
- High intake of foods rich in fiber (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds), as low fiber intake is associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer. Greater fiber intake also appears to help lower the risk of prostate, breast, mouth, throat, and esophageal cancers.
Another extrinsic risk factor for cancer is exposure to environmental pollutants, which can range from bisphenol-A (BPA) found in some plastic products to phthalates, formaldehyde, nicotine, carbon monoxide, arsenic, styrene, pesticides and herbicides, and synthetic hormones, among many others. These toxins can be found in our food, air, water, household items, building supplies, cleaning products, personal care items, and more. Although it’s not possible to avoid exposure to all environmental cancer-causing agents, you can significantly reduce it by choosing all-natural and/or organic foods and personal care products, using all-natural cleaners, filtering your water (do not buy water in plastic bottles), and choosing everyday products that have not been treated with or contain potentially harmful chemicals.
You have the power to help prevent cancer. All it takes is a conscious effort to live a healthy lifestyle, which not only assists in warding off cancer but also supports an overall better quality of life. Preventing cancer isn’t rocket science; it’s common sense.