Cancer is one of the most dreaded words in the English language. But we can do many things throughout the day to reduce our risk of this dread disease. You can incorporate more fruit and veggies into your diet, drink green tea, drive with the windows up, and clean the air with houseplants. Read on for more practical suggestions for making cancer-preventive strategies a natural part of your day.
In the next 60 minutes, doctors will diagnose 20 Canadians with cancer. It takes a fraction of that time to decide to adopt daily habits to prevent cancer. Thankfully, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that we can prevent many forms of cancer through healthy behaviours.
Cancer by the numbers
If you ask around, many people will say they’ve personally battled cancer or know someone who has courageously faced this disease. It’s no surprise when you look at the statistics. “Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada,” says Robert Nuttall, assistant director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. “About two in five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime. Over the next 15 years, the number of new cancer cases is expected to increase by about 40 percent.”
Canadian cancer researchers spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year looking for a cure, but we have yet to discover a bulletproof prescription for prevention. The research does, however, offer practical and easy-to-follow guidelines for reducing your cancer risk from the hour you wake up to the minute you go to bed.
Wake up to chemical dangers
The bathroom sink, where we prep ourselves for the day, is a minefield of cancer risks. For example, a 2014 study warns that triclosan—a common ingredient in hand soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, and more—may raise the risk of liver tumours.
When you roll out of bed tomorrow, press snooze on the following dangers.
Fragrances: Turn your nose up at any products with heavy fragrances, which can contain dozens of hormone-disrupting toxins.
Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs): Wrinkle your face at antiaging products containing AHA or BHA. They may increase sun sensitivity and skin cancer risk.
Petrolatum: Dump any lotions and lip balms with this common moisturizing ingredient, which can be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. It’s sometimes listed as mineral oil jelly.
Nonylphenol: Switch out shaving creams and hair-styling products that contain this toxin.
Isobutane: Reject hairsprays, gels, and mousses with this air pollutant.
Knowing what to add to our mornings is as important as knowing what to avoid. Sunscreen remains one of the most effective weapons in our war against skin cancer. Apply it about 20 minutes before you plan to go outside, even in winter or when it’s cloudy. Use a natural, mineral-based sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher—SPF 30 when you know you’ll be outdoors most of the day—and follow the labelled instructions for reapplying.
The best part of waking up
Good news for those of us who need a little caffeine jolt in the morning: more than 1,000 studies have looked at the effects of coffee on cancer. Research suggests moderate coffee drinking—fewer than five cups a day—may lower liver and endometrial cancer risk thanks to coffee’s phytochemicals and vitamins.
Green tea may be an even smarter choice. Studies suggest it reduces the risk of prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, and more.
To breakfast and beyond
Whether you’re making breakfast, packing a lunch for work, or planning a grocery trip for dinner, what you eat is key. It’s all about a predominantly plant-based diet.
“The science is clear: you can lower your risk of cancer if you … eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, as well as other fibre-rich plant foods such as whole grains and beans,” says Gina Sunderland, clinical oncology dietitian at CancerCare Manitoba. “Choose vegetables and fruits in a rainbow of colours,” she suggests, since they’re typically “high in nutrients, fibre, and antioxidants—compounds that protect cells from damage.”
On the other hand, Sunderland cautions against eating processed meats. “The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that consuming 50 g of processed meat per day—the amount of one wiener or three strips of bacon—can increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent over your lifetime.”
Sunderland also recommends these anticancer meal-planning tips.
- Eat organic whole grain bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
- Focus on plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.
- If you eat meat, opt for fish or organic lean meat.
- Limit red meat intake to fewer than three 3 oz (85 g) servings per week.
- Avoid salami, ham, and other processed meat, which contain known carcinogens.
- Avoid alcohol. Hundreds of studies have connected alcohol consumption to cancer development.
There’s a Pill for That
“In the world of integrative oncology, the hottest supplements … for potentially reducing the risk of cancer are Asian mushroom extracts,” says Joseph Feuerstein, MD, director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital.
Extracts of lion’s mane, reishi, shiitake, turkey tail, and other Asian mushrooms are rich in beta glucan, which Feuerstein says increases natural anticancer activity in the body. “Large population studies from Asia show a reduction in cancer mortality in populations who [consume] a lot of these mushrooms,” he says.
Read more about these medicinal mushrooms here.
The daily commute
Here’s something that will provoke road rage: the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has officially classified dirty air as a carcinogen, putting it on the same list as cigarette smoke. The agency found a strong link between outdoor air pollution and increased lung cancer risk. While all air pollution is hazardous, the agency specified that fine particulate matter is in a class of its own when it comes to causing lung cancer.
Environment Canada reports that Vancouver has the lowest average fine particulate matter concentration among major Canadian cities, while Calgary has some of the worst levels. No matter where you live, these daily commute tips will cut your exposure to cancer-causing air pollution.
- Drive with the windows up at all times.
- Avoid freeways if driving time is otherwise the same on quieter side roads. Air pollution on freeways can be 10 times higher than on other roads.
- Press the recirculate button on your car’s ventilation system. By recirculating air inside the car, you reduce the amount of in-car air pollution to just 20 percent of on-road pollution levels. In contrast, not recirculating the air exposes you to 80 percent of on-road air pollution.
- Take public transit or carpool with others. This minimizes the number of vehicles that contribute to poor air quality.
Millions of Canadians are exposed to carcinogens in their average workday. The most common carcinogen, affecting 1.9 million Canadians, may surprise you: shift work. Chronic disturbance to our sleep cycle due to shift work can contribute to long-term cancer development. That’s why the International Agency for Research on Cancer officially declared it a probable carcinogen.
Although there’s not a lot you can do about shift work other than changing jobs, you can take control of your office environment to minimize other cancer risk factors.
Clear the air with houseplants
Spider plants and golden pothos filter out formaldehyde, while gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums remove benzene from the air. Both chemicals are in the top seven most common carcinogens in Canadian workplaces.
Stand up and move
If you have a desk job, make an effort to stand up, stretch, and walk around every hour. Constant sitting increases your risk of cancer.
Watch out for sugary office snacks
High-sugar diets may make us more likely to develop esophageal cancer. Plus, they increase the risk of diabetes and obesity, which also heighten cancer risk.
In and around the home
Many cancer risk factors are due to environmental issues that we can’t directly influence. “We can’t always control the environment,” says Dean Ornish, MD.
Instead, Ornish challenges us to look at our daily lifestyle. “Avoid carcinogenic household cleaners, insecticides, plastic bottles, et cetera,” he advises. Here’s why.
Sweep away cancer concerns
Traditional household cleaners often contain alkylphenols, dyes, 1,4-dioxane, and more—all chemicals that raise cancer risk. Instead, whip up homemade cleaners using ingredients such as citrus juices, vinegar, and baking soda. You can also find premixed natural cleaners at health food stores.
Tell toxins to bug off
Hundreds of pesticides and insecticides are made with potent carcinogens such as glyphosate and dichlorvos. When battling home or backyard pests, use safer alternatives such as diatomaceous earth, which kills bugs with fewer risks to humans.
Purge plastic containers
Many plastic food containers and drink bottles contain bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic estrogen that may raise breast cancer risk. Instead, use reusable ceramic, glass, or steel containers. When you must use plastic, look for containers or bottles labelled with a number 2, 4, or 5. If plastic is labelled with the number 7, look for a leaf symbol or PLA label to ensure it’s BPA free.
Be a fan of pure indoor air
Most air fresheners contain fragrances, propellants, and other chemicals that can cause cancer. Many candles have similar risks. Instead, use essential oils to freshen the air. For candles, use undyed, unscented soy candles or beeswax candles.
Exercise your way to health
“Aim for 30 minutes of daily activity that gets your heart going to help protect against cancer,” says the Canadian Cancer Society’s Nuttall. Start with these gym-free examples.
Make exercise easy
“Build physical activity into your daily routine by taking the stairs more often and parking farther away from store entrances,” suggests CancerCare Manitoba’s Sunderland.
Spiff up your home
Yardwork and housework are exercise, says Sunderland, so long as you get your heart rate up.
Stretch and breathe
Not only does yoga count as cancer-preventing exercise, but dozens of studies have also found it improves the emotional and physical health of people currently fighting cancer.
Get ZZZs, not cancer
The less sleep we get, the less cancer protection we have. Lack of sleep ups our risk of colorectal cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and more. That’s especially troubling when a recent study found that more than 40 percent of Canadians have one or more symptoms of insomnia. Aim for seven or eight hours of sleep a night.
If counting sheep doesn’t help, try these alternatives:
- Sip teas made from passionflower, valerian root, or camomile, which reduce stress and minimize insomnia.
- Take magnesium. It may improve sleep quality and fight daytime fatigue.
- Try melatonin, which can promote drowsiness and ready the body for sleep.
- Eat foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits. This antioxidant may reduce levels of stress hormones.
- Unplug from electronics in the bedroom. Bright screens from smartphones and other gadgets mess with the brain’s production of sleep hormones.
Look on the bright side
Keep your head up! Cancer and other life challenges can feel dark, heavy, and scary. Whatever you’re facing, feel empowered to do what you can to take control of your health. When we stay positive, we’re better able to cope with life’s difficulties, including cancer, and this positive mindset has a direct effect on our physical and mental health.
What about pets?
Millions of dogs and cats get diagnosed every year with cancer. Help your animal companions with these prevention tips.
- Use pet food made with whole food ingredients. Avoid anything made with grain meals, animal and grain byproducts, rendered fat, meat meal, and food dyes.
- Keep pets at a healthy weight based on their breed. Just like in humans, obesity increases cancer risks.
- Walk dogs in clean, natural areas free of car pollution, herbicides, pesticides, and other common chemicals used in and around city streets, parks, and lawns.
- Use natural, carcinogen-free household cleaners. Self-grooming can cause indoor pets to ingest any cancer-causing chemicals on their fur.