How to Lower Your Risk of Cancer

Cancer is a frightening disease, but there are steps you can take to lower your risk of getting it. A healthy diet, regular exercise, screening and not smoking can help. Learn about risk reduction strategies here.

Fighting the big C

So you don’t plan on being one of the millions of Canadians who will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime? You probably already know enough not to smoke and to stay away from excessive sun exposure. But did you also know that to help keep cancer at bay, you should keep active, maintain a healthy weight and get appropriate screening tests? Taking such steps, say experts, can reduce the incidence of some cancers and cut cancer deaths by 50% — some believe by much more. In the field of cancer prevention, here’s what we know today.


An estimated 30% of fatal cancers in Canada are caused by tobacco, and about 80% of lung cancers are smoking-related. But cancers of the bladder, tongue, esophagus and pancreas are linked to the evil weed, too. “The one lifestyle habit that we know the most about — and the one we could do the most with via the smallest change in population behaviour — is cigarette smoking,” says Dr. Richard Gallagher, leader at the Cancer Control Research Program of the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver and a clinical professor of health care and epidemiology at the University of British Columbia.


Physical activity

Recent studies have repeatedly indicated that regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer. A 2006 study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., found that vigorous exercise cut breast cancer risk by 12%, even taking into consideration other risk factors such as age, family history, number of pregnancies and use of hormone replacement therapy. And the Women’s Health Initiative in the U.S. concluded that those who participated in about two hours per week of brisk walking or other moderate exercise had an 18% lower risk of breast malignancy.



Some plant chemicals have cancer-fighting capacities. They interfere with cell cycles and stop the runaway replication of cancer cells. Others reduce oxidative stress, a process that generates rogue oxygen molecules called free radicals. These can damage cells and turn them malignant. Still others induce apoptosis, the programmed cell death that signals cancer cells to commit suicide.
Some evidence is emerging that a high-fat diet is linked to cancer. Some researchers speculate that saturated fat promotes the production of estrogen, which may fuel hormone-dependent cancer growth.


Sun exposure

So is the answer to preventing some cancers to get sun exposure to prompt your body to produce vitamin D? Most experts agree that Canadians can’t make enough vitamin D from sun exposure alone year-round. And the sun is the main cause of skin cancer, so no one recommends getting excessive exposure to the sun.
Still, the Canadian Cancer Society now recommends that you get a few minutes of daily sun exposure on unprotected skin to boost your body’s production of vitamin D. The body makes this nutrient from a cholesterol-like substance in the skin when it’s exposed to UVB rays.


Preventing infections

There’s growing acceptance of the principle that preventing certain viral and bacterial infections will reduce cancer rates. “Altogether, infections are responsible for up to 25% of cancers in the developing world and just short of 10% in the developed world,” says Dr. Franco Eduardo, director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology at McGill University in Montreal.


Environmental hazards

Other than cigarette smoke, the sun, radioactive radon gas and asbestos, we don’t precisely know what agents in the environment cause cancer, says Dr. Gallagher. “It’s very difficult to do studies big enough to identify an environmental carcinogen.” But the evidence we do have suggests that we shouldn’t worry too much about household chemicals. “You usually need prolonged exposure at a fair concentration to develop a cancer. Even if we eliminate all household cleaners, we’re probably not going to see any measurable difference in cancer rates 10 years from now.”



Studies show that regular users of acetylsalicylic acid and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen have a 20% to 50% lower risk of colorectal cancer. Some studies have suggested a reduced risk of breast cancer with NSAID use, too. Inflammation can be an early step on a cell’s path to malignancy.


Insulin resistance

New research points to a possible link between pre-diabetes and colon cancer. This suggests that avoiding the condition that leads to type 2 diabetes — insulin resistance — will become a major prevention goal. Diabetes begins with the body’s inability to produce enough or effectively use insulin. “The hypothesis is that the same factors that give you cancer are the ones that also give you diabetes,” says Dr. Peter O’Brien, a professor emeritus in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “We think that some people with insulin resistance develop diabetes and some develop colon cancer.”


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