The Healthy Lifestyle Choices You Can Make to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

About four in 10 cancer cases can be prevented through healthy living, a study says. Photo: Silke Woweries/GettyImages

These days, a cancer diagnosis is by no means a death sentence — and about four in 10 cancer cases can actually be prevented. Making healthy lifestyle choices can significantly reduce the risk of many types of cancer, while detecting cancer early can help to improve outcomes.

Feb. 4 was World Cancer Day, aimed at raising awareness of cancer prevention, detection and treatment. This is perhaps even more significant this year, during a global pandemic. Health-care resources have been stretched to the limit, and many cancer diagnostic tests and treatments have been cancelled or postponed.

“The best way to help people with cancer is to end this pandemic, [such as] wearing a mask,” says Elizabeth Holmes, manager of health policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. “Protect the health-care system, which protects the cancer care system. That’s so important, that’s something all Canadians can do.”

Canadians can also protect themselves: about four in 10 cancer cases can be prevented through healthy living (as well as government policies that protect the health of Canadians), according to the ComPARe (Canadian Population Attributable Risk of Cancer) study.

The study looked at factors such as lifestyle, environment and infectious agents, finding that 20 of those identifiable risk factors — such as smoking tobacco, physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet as well as UV rays, radon and air pollution — are related to more than 30 types of cancer.

Smoking is still the leading cause of cancer. “The single best thing you can do for your health is to live smoke-free,” says Holmes. Indeed, ComPARe found that two out of 10 Canadian adults smoke, and 32,700 cancer cases are related to smoking tobacco each year. (The Canadian Cancer Society offers cessation programs; more information can be found here.)

Cancer prevention is also about “moving more and sitting less, having or maintaining a healthy body weight, getting that variety of fruits and vegetables, getting lots of fibre and limiting alcohol,” says Holmes.

This has been challenging during a global pandemic, when people are spending more time at home, binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating their favourite comfort foods. Many are also drinking more alcohol.

Any amount of alcohol can increase your risk of cancer, says Holmes. But limiting intake could prevent about 44,300 cancer cases by 2042.

That’s why this year’s Dry Feb — an annual fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society that challenges participants to go alcohol-free in February — includes the new Dry(ish) Feb, where participants can choose two weeks, three weeks, the entire month or a customized timeframe.

The idea is to give your body a break and provide some insight into your drinking habits — perhaps you’ve started drinking on weeknights since the pandemic started, instead of just on weekends — while raising funds for cancer research. It’s about “that reset and reflection on your relationship with alcohol,” says Holmes.

While many New Year’s resolutions have fallen flat by February, it’s important not to abandon healthy habits altogether — especially when it comes to eating a healthier diet and getting enough physical activity.

When they’re not sleeping, Canadian adults spend almost 10 hours a day being sedentary (and that may be even higher during the pandemic). More than one out of two Canadian adults are carrying excess weight, and obesity is a risk factor for at least 11 types of cancer.

“First of all, be kind to yourself,” says Holmes. “We recommend aiming for 30 minutes of daily activity to get your heart rate going, but 10 minutes a day [to start] is great, then add another 10 minutes. Do things you feel safe doing in the context of the pandemic — getting outside if it’s safe for you to physically distance.”

In addition to living a healthy lifestyle, screening tests can help detect breast, cervical or colorectal cancer early — even if you haven’t noticed any symptoms:
• HPV infection causes almost all cervical cancer — as well as some other types of cancer. Women should get a regular Pap test starting at 21 years of age and talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccine.
• Women from 50 to 74 should have a mammogram every two years to test for breast cancer.
• Men and women from 50 to 74 should take a regular stool test to screen for colorectal cancer — the second most common cause of cancer death in Canada. When caught early, it’s 90 per cent treatable.
• Men at risk of developing prostate cancer should talk to their doctor about getting tested starting from age 50. When detected early, the survival rate is close to 100 per cent after five years.

About five to 10 per cent of cancers are hereditary, caused by an inherited gene mutation, “so it’s important to know your family history and bring that information with you to your doctor,” says Holmes. Genetics tests are available for some types of cancer, but an inherited gene doesn’t mean cancer is inevitable.

But if you have any concerns — such as a change in the shape of a mole, blood in your urine, dramatic weight loss or a genetic predisposition — don’t wait until post-pandemic to get it checked out. With many types of cancer, when found and treated early there’s a much higher chance of a better outcome.


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