Embrace a healthy lifestyle to help reduce cancer risk

Published Jan. 22, 2015

Cancer can be seen as striking haphazardly, but research over the past 40 years shows that lifestyle factors often play a huge role in the incidence and severity of many cancers. Dr. Graham Colditz, a disease-prevention expert at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., has compiled a list of behaviors that reduce overall cancer risk. He suggests starting with one or two from the list, then moving on to the others.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you're overweight, focus first on not gaining any more weight. When you're ready, try to take off extra pounds. Tips:

• Integrate physical activity and movement into your life.

• Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

• Choose smaller portions and eat more slowly.

For parents and grandparents:

• Limit children's TV and computer time.

• Encourage healthy snacking.

• Encourage activity during free time.

Get screening tests

A number of important screening tests can help protect against cancer. Some tests find cancers early when they are most treatable, while others can actually help keep cancer from developing in the first place. Talk to a health care professional about which tests you should have and when.

These should be tested for regularly:

• Colon and rectal cancer

• Breast cancer

• Cervical cancer

• Lung cancer (in current or past heavy smokers)

Protect yourself from the sun

Too much exposure can lead to skin cancer. Skin damage starts early in childhood, so it's especially important to protect children. Tips:

• Steer clear of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

• Wear a hat, long-sleeved shirt and sunscreen with SPF15 or higher.

• Don't use sun lamps or tanning beds.

For parents and grandparents:

• Buy colored sunscreen so you can see if you've missed any spots on a fidgety child.

• Set a good example by protecting yourself with clothing, shade and sunscreen.

Exercise regularly

It's important to fit in at least 30 minutes of activity every day. More is even better, but any amount is better than none. Tips:

• Choose activities you enjoy. Many things count as exercise, including walking, gardening and dancing.

• Make exercise a habit by setting aside the same time for it each day.

• Stay motivated by exercising with someone.

For parents and grandparents:

• Play active games with your kids, and go on family walks and bike rides.

• Encourage children to play outside and take part in organized activities.

• Walk with your kids to school.

Don't smoke

Quitting smoking is absolutely the best thing you can do for your health. Tips:

• Keep trying. It often takes six or seven tries before you quit for good.

• Talk to a health care provider for help.

• Join a quit-smoking program.

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For parents and grandparents:

• If you smoke, your children will be more likely to smoke, so try to quit as soon as possible.

• Don't smoke in the house or car. If kids breathe in your smoke, they may have a higher risk of breathing problems and lung cancer.

• Talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keep red meat to a minimum. Cut back on bad fats and choose healthy fats. Tips:

• Make fruits and vegetables a part of every meal.

• Choose chicken, fish or beans instead of red meat.

• Choose whole-grain cereal, brown rice and whole wheat bread.

• Choose dishes made with healthy fats such as olive oil.

• Cut back on fast food and packaged snacks, which are high in bad fats.

Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all

Moderate drinking is good for the heart, but it can also increase the risk of cancer. If you drink moderately (less than one drink a day for women, less than two drinks a day for men), there's probably no reason to stop. People who drink more should cut back. Tips:

• Choose nonalcoholic beverages at meals and parties.

• Avoid occasions centered around booze.

• Talk to a health care professional if you think you have a problem.

For parents and grandparents:

• Avoid making alcohol an essential part of family gatherings.

• Discuss the dangers of drugs and alcohol with children when appropriate.

Protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections

Among other problems, STIs — like human papillomavirus — are linked to a number of different cancers. Tips:

• Besides not having sex, the best protection is to be in a monogamous relationship with someone who does not have an STI.

• For all other situations, always use a condom and follow safe-sex practices.

For parents and grandparents:

• When appropriate, discuss with children the importance of abstinence and safe sex. A health care professional or school counselor can help.

• Vaccinate girls and young women as well as boys and young men against HPV. Talk to a health professional for more information.