Illustration by Jim Woolace / Fred Hutch News Service
You’ve probably heard people talk about how there’s a cure for cancer but “THEY” (insert your favorite conspiracy-theory villain) are keeping it from you.
That’s actually half true, in a manner of speaking. There is a “cure” of sorts called prevention and/or risk reduction — but no one is keeping it from you. Cancer researchers have in fact been shouting it from the rooftops for years, but since it involves vegetables and exercise, as opposed to a new therapeutic breakthrough, most people have blithely ignored it.
We shouldn’t, said Kelly Browning, chief executive officer of the American Institute for Cancer Research, which along with the World Cancer Research Fund just released a 116-page report that boiled down evidence from hundreds of scientific studies involving 51 million people, including 3.5 million people with 17 different kinds of cancer.
“The message may not be glamorous but these changes can save your life,” Browning said in an interview. “The evidence is clear that making changes to diet and exercise and maintaining a healthy weight cuts cancer risks, regardless of age.”
Fred Hutch file photo
The landmark report, a comprehensive analysis of research on lifestyle factors and cancer prevention, issued 10 recommendations to kick preventable cancer to the curb. Follow them and you should be able to significantly cut your personal cancer risk (you’ll also reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes).
Certain inherited genetic mutations (and yes, just plain bad biological luck) will still drive the disease in some people. But behaviors — the things we eat and drink; how much we eat and drink; and how much we move our bodies — play a huge role in determining our health.
“The range of cancers affected by lifestyle factors like diet, alcohol use and exercise is surprisingly high,” said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center epidemiologist Dr. Anne McTiernan, one of a dozen or so scientists on the panel that compiled the report. “Cancer really is a preventable disease.” (Read her full commentary here.)
What can you do to cut your cancer risk? The first two steps are so obvious the report didn’t even bother making them recommendations: avoid tobacco products (especially smoking) and excess sun exposure.
After that, the world’s leading cancer prevention experts offer these tips. And since changing behavior is never easy, they’ve also created useful tools to help you stay healthy and motivated.
Be a healthy weight and avoid weight gain in adult life. What does that mean? The World Health Organization defines a healthy adult BMI (body mass index) as 18.5 to 24.9. “Body fatness,” the panel concluded, is a cause of many cancers and the evidence has only grown stronger over the last decade (excess weight is also associated with type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease and other diseases).
Be physically active every day — walk more and sit less. Sedentary lifestyles have become more common in high-income countries since the second half of the 20th century and it’s not serving anyone well. Our bodies are made to move. Experts recommend you get at least (if not more than) 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise (walking, cycling, household chores, swimming, dancing) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running, team sports, fast cycling). Kids ages 5 to 17 need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day. When it comes to cancer prevention, the greater the amount of physical activity, the greater the benefit.
Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit and beans. Eat at least 30 grams of fiber (from food sources) a day. Fold into most meals whole grains (like brown rice, oats, barley and rye), non-starchy veggies (something other than potatoes and corn), fruits and legumes like beans and lentils. Aim for at least five daily portions/servings of veggies and fruit. And again, it’s all about the non-starchy vegetables: green leafy veggies, broccoli, okra, eggplant, carrots, celery, artichokes and the like.
Limit consumption of "fast foods" and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars to help control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight. Greasy fast-food cheeseburgers, boxes of macaroni and cheese, blueberry muffins as big as your fist and gooey candy bars are not your friends. Sure, these processed, packaged or pre-prepared foods may seem convenient but they’re loaded with bad fats, starches and sugars and have been clearly linked to the rising rates of obesity and all that goes with it. Focus on real food.
Limit consumption of red and processed meat. Keep red meat consumption (such as beef, veal, pork, lamb) to no more than three portions per week for a total of 12 to 18 ounces. Eat very little to no processed meat (i.e., anything salted, cured, smoked). Get your protein from whole grains, legumes, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs.
Limit consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. What does this mean? Stop drinking pop (or if you prefer, soda), as well as sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, barley water and even coffee- and tea-based drinks that have sugars or syrups added. The expert panel even frowns on drinking too much fruit juice. Stick with water and unsweetened drinks. Bonus benefit: not only will this help you drop weight and avoid many cancers, you’ll have fewer cavities.
Limit alcohol consumption. Apparently, even small amounts of alcohol — whether it’s beer, wine or hard liquor — can bump your risk for some cancers. If you truly want to play it safe, don’t drink at all. Not only will you cut your chances of getting cancer, you’ll lower your risk for cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease. You’ll also never have to worry about drunk texting again.
Do not use supplements for cancer prevention. Supplements that bump your micronutrients are not recommended for cancer prevention. If you are otherwise healthy and have access to a regular supply of a variety of foods and drinks, you should be able to get adequate nutrition through your meals.
For mothers: breastfeed your baby, if you can. The World Health Organization advises moms to exclusively give breast milk for six months, then to breastfeed along with appropriate complementary foods for up to two years after. Not only will this protect moms against breast cancer, it will protect the child against infections and other childhood diseases.
After a cancer diagnosis: follow these recommendations, if you can. Diet, physical activity and body fatness are even more important for people who’ve gone through cancer. Breast cancer survivors, in particular, have improved survival and better quality of life if they’re physically active. Check with your health professional about what is right for you.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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