Family Health: Take steps to lower your cancer risks

Cancer statistics can be alarming. It is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and it takes more than a half-million lives each year. But there is another side to the story—death rates for many types of cancer are falling.

These improved numbers are partly a result of better cancer treatments. But they also come from something each person can do to improve his or her own health—prevention.

What you can do every day

For some of us, cancer is part of our family history. Having a close relative who has had breast, ovarian, prostate or certain other cancers raises your risk for getting that cancer yourself. You are also more likely to develop cancer as you age.

You can not change your age or your family history, but there are things you can do to reduce other cancer risk factors. These healthy habits can help protect you from getting cancer:

  • Do not smoke. Smoking causes nearly one-third of all cancer deaths in the U.S. That includes 85 percent of all lung cancers, as well as cancers of the mouth and throat. In fact, smoking can cause cancer nearly anywhere in the body, including the pancreas, bladder, colon, liver, stomach and other areas. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies for quitting. You can also go to for help.
  • Eat a healthy diet. That means enriching your meals with many servings of vegetables and fruit, which contain nutrients that may help prevent cancer. Limit red meat and processed meats, and try to avoid fatty and sugary foods that can add pounds. Choose whole-grain breads and pasta instead of refined grains like white bread or white rice. While dietary supplements are often promoted as beneficial for preventing cancer, research does not support these claims. It is best to get your vitamins and other nutrients from food.
  • Get plenty of exercise. Studies show that being physically active reduces your risks for cancers of the colon and breast, and may also help you avoid prostate, lung and endometrial cancer. If you are not currently physically active, start slowly and gradually increase your activities. Work toward getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity such as biking or jogging. Walking is an excellent moderate activity, and it is fine to take short walks that add up to your goal. Be sure to talk with your doctor about the best way to get started if you have any symptoms or chronic health conditions.
  • Control your weight. The best way to evaluate your weight is to measure your body mass index, or BMI. You can find an online BMI calculator at BMI takes both your height and weight into consideration. If your BMI shows that you are overweight or obese, you have higher than average risks for cancers of the colon, esophagus, kidney and pancreas. Breast cancer in women who are past menopause is also linked to obesity. Staying active and eating healthy foods can help you maintain a healthy weight. If are overweight, talk to your doctor about a plan to start losing pounds.

Take the next step

Another way to fight cancer is to find it early with regular screening tests, because many early cancers are treatable. To use colon cancer screening as an example, nearly all colorectal cancers begin as polyps. When polyps are found with a screening colonoscopy they can be removed at the same time, which stops the progression of disease in its tracks. If the thought of a colonoscopy is difficult for you to consider, it is important to know that there are other ways to screen for colon cancer. For example, talk to your doctor about a FIT test, which can be done at home. If this test shows a positive result, a colonoscopy is then done to look for polyps and other signs of cancer.

Other screening tests find early cancers of the breast, cervix, lung and skin, as well as many other health conditions. Finding cancer and other diseases early gives treatments the best chance to work. The tests you need depend on your age, sex and overall health, so talk to your doctor about which ones to have and when to start.

Since some cancers result from infections, vaccinations are another prevention tool. A vaccine to prevent the human papillomavirus (HPV) helps prevent cervical cancer, and the hepatitis B vaccine can prevent liver cancer.

Get started today

For many people, changing their diet and everyday activities can seem overwhelming. But you don’t have to make big changes all at once. Start by adding a few veggies to your meals and taking a daily walk, then work toward bigger goals. Remember that losing just 10 percent of your weight gives you important health benefits, such as lower risks for some cancers as well as heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.

You can get personalized information about screening tests and other ways to stay healthy from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at Enter your age and sex in myhealthfinder to get specific recommendations. You are likely to find that taking control of your health will lead to better health overall.