Cancer is scary — we all know that. But it’s also scary how powerless we feel against it. Genetics play a part in some types of cancer, sure. But that doesn’t mean your genes dictate your story. Here’s how to flex the very real power you do have to keep the big C at bay.
Cut back on the cocktails
We’ve all heard that moderate drinking can have some benefits for heart health, but when it comes to reducing cancer risk, your best bet is to further moderate that moderation. “Our recommendation for men is to limit alcohol intake to, at most, two drinks per day,” says Alice Bender, director of nutrition programs at the American Institute of Cancer Research. “It’s linked to a number of cancers, and we would say that, in the interest of cancer prevention, to not drink at all. But there are those heart health benefits, so the recommended amount is still fairly safe.” According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol intake has been linked to a higher risk of colon and rectal cancer — and while this has been true of both men and women, the evidence is stronger among men.
Watch your weight
Higher amounts of body fat are associated with greater risk of certain types of cancer, including gallbladder, pancreas, kidney and liver, according to the National Cancer Institute. And that risk bump doesn’t always play out evenly across the sexes: Overweight and obese men are nearly twice as likely to develop liver cancer as normal-weight men — an association that’s stronger than for women. And recent studies have linked obesity with a greater risk of prostate cancer in men, and a greater risk for colon cancer.
Even if you’re at a healthy weight now, it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on the scale, says Shelley Tworoger, MD, associate center director of population science at Moffitt Cancer Center, a nonprofit research and treatment facility in Tampa, FL. “A lot of people gain one or two pounds every year,” she says. “But if you think about that over the course of 30 years, that adds up to a large amount of weight. It can be insidious.”
Sweat It Out
Exercise packs plenty of health benefits — including possibly preventing cancer. A 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that regular physical activity could reduce the risk of 13 types of cancer. And here’s good news for those with higher BMIs and a regular workout routine: 10 types of cancer saw a risk dip in the face of physical activity, despite participants’ weight. A wide-ranging review of multiple studies showed that regular exercise could decrease risk of prostate cancer as much as 30 percent. What’s more, for men who have already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, an increase in activity and vigorous exertion can actually improve survival rates. How much is enough? The US Department of Health and Human Services, the American Cancer Society, and the World Health Organization recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity.
Clean up your plate
When it comes to cancer, not all calories are created equal. “We have a model called the New American Plate, which is a guide for your whole diet,” says Bender. “Make sure at least two-thirds of what you put on your plate comes from plants — vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit, nuts — and one-third or less can contain animal foods, whether poultry, fish, or dairy.” Not only will this help keep your weight in check, but a plant-based diet packs a lot of fiber and nutrients that can help reduce cancer risk. “Colorful vegetables have a lot of phytochemicals, which have been shown to help prevent cancer,” Bender says. Cruciferous vegetables, such as arugula, broccoli, cauliflower and kale, may even inhibit the development of cancer in certain organs. And Bender points out that lightly steaming vegetables won’t demolish their health benefits. “You don’t have to eat all raw food!”
As for what not to eat, research suggests that vegetarians and vegans may have the lowest risk of cancer, as meat, dairy, and egg consumption have been linked to certain types of cancer. For carnivores, the biggest risk bump comes from eating red and processed meat: Red meat contains heme iron, and processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites, all of which may damage the lining of the colon and increase the risk of cancer. If all or nothing feels overwhelming, aim for moderation. “With red meat, the recommendation is no more than 18 ounces, cooked, per week,” says Bender. That’s the equivalent of about two restaurant burgers a week.
Get some sleep!
It’s not an obvious connection to make, but Tworoger says that sleep can actually factor into our cancer risk. How? “Studies show that people who have poor sleep habits — whether they have sleep apnea or sleep in short durations — can actually see changes in their metabolism that can lead to increased weight gain,” she says. “And that higher body fat can lead to worse sleep, which can exacerbate additional weight gain.” The lesson? Think twice before pulling that all-nighter.
Get chatty with your doctor
For some, genetic history stacks the cards against them when it comes to cancer. “African-American men are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than men of other races,” Tworoger says. “And obviously you can’t change that fact.” But you can talk to your doctor about your family history and what steps you’re taking to shift the deck back in your favor. And when you’re chatting through history, be sure to include both men and women in your family tree. The BRCA mutation, for example, can signify much higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women. But BRCA can affect men, as well. Research has shown that men with certain BRCA mutations can be seven times more likely to develop prostate cancer.
Don’t smoke, silly
These days, it’s probably no surprise that smoking is harmful to you and everyone around you. What you might not know is that, for heavy smokers, it may increase your risk of death from cancer by 30 percent more than non-smokers. In addition to causing lung cancer, smoking — the leading cause of preventable disease and death — also has been linked with much higher instances of prostate cancer —not to mention cancers of the liver, mouth, throat, colon, bladder, and blood. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: “Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body.” And in the US there’s a much higher prevalence of male smokers than women. Want to give that stat the brush off? Nix the nicotine.
Slather on the Sunscreen
First, the bad news: According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of melanoma incidences among American adult males has nearly quadrupled since the 1970s. But the good news is that research shows that daily sunscreen use may halve your risk of developing melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Want to maximize your protection? Make sure you’re putting that sunscreen on right (mistakes are more common than you might think!).