Adopting a healthy lifestyle - for our entire life - is the best cancer prevention strategy we can embrace.
Cancer is the number one cause of death among Canadians. Is there anything we can do to prevent cancer from developing? While there is no guarantee against this seemingly indiscriminate illness, there are strategies to give us added insurance throughout each decade of our lives.
The 20s: free at last!
Many twentysomethings flee the nest to forge an existence separate from the family unit. Starting out on the right path by establishing cancer-preventing practices will help to ensure a lifetime of good health.
Dietary factors alone are responsible for as much as 9 percent of all cancers. Follow a few simple guidelines to reduce risk.
- Curb your consumption of red, salted, and processed meats, as these increase cancer risk. Pile your plate with veggies and animal-free protein sources instead.
- Skip the broiler, deep fryer, and barbecue: cooking animal protein at high temperatures creates mutagenic (cancer-causing) compounds. Try baking meat, poultry, and fish or break out the slow cooker.
- Steam rather than boil veggies to preserve their cancer-fighting properties.
People come in all shapes and sizes. Our anatomy is as individual as our face, with a wide range of variations falling within the “normal” range. Knowing your body and what is normal for you will help you to notice subtle changes if they happen.
- Be self-aware when it comes to your body. Women should be aware of any changes to how their breasts normally look and feel, while men should regularly check their testicles and penis for abnormalities.
- Have a regular Pap test (every one to three years depending on previous test results) to check for cervical cancer. A pelvic exam investigating ovarian, uterine, and vaginal health should also be done.
Strive for a healthy lifestyle
Smoking causes about one-fifth of all cancer cases worldwide, while consuming as few as two drinks per day significantly increases the risk of colorectal and other cancers. Binge drinking in particular increases breast cancer risk.
- Use alcohol responsibly; engage in some social activities that don’t involve drinking. Talk to your health care practitioner if you need added support.
- Quit smoking today! Check out online resources such as smokershelpline.ca.
The 30s: career and family
The thirties are a time of heightened activity as we balance the demands of new careers, new families, and often-demanding social schedules.
As parents and other family members age and some reach the end of their lives, cancer awareness may hit very close to home. Having children may lead us to new heights of concern about our future health and that of our kids.
- Learn about your own cancer risk based on family patterns—talk to your health care practitioner to find out if additional tests or early screening are right for you.
- Breastfeed your children, if possible, to reduce your risk of breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers.
- Focus on the factors that you can change, continuing with healthy lifestyle choices.
If dating rather than child-rearing is on your agenda in this decade, inform yourself about the cancer risks associated with some sexually transmitted infections. Human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are associated with cervical cancer, liver cancer, and Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare skin cancer), respectively. HIV may also increase the risk of anal and lung cancers.
- Use a condom or dental dam to prevent HIV spread and reduce the risk of contracting HPV and hepatitis.
Sleeping away cancer risk
Melatonin, a soporific antioxidant hormone, has potent anticancer properties and is decreased by nighttime wakefulness, potentially increasing cancer risk. Production of melatonin is decreased by interrupted or shortened sleep patterns.
- Avoid shift work if at all possible. A recent study in Denmark showed that women working night shifts more than doubled their cancer risk.
- Banish light from your sleeping environment—studies of exposure to light at night show increased breast cancer risk.
The 40s: weight and stress management
As we reach our forties, waistlines tend to expand while our free time for relaxation and exercise seems to contract. Reversing this common trend is a powerful step in cancer prevention.
Cancer and obesity
Sixty percent of Canadians are overweight or obese—body mass index (BMI) over 24.9-—increasing the risk of cancers of the colon, pancreas, breast, and liver. Obesity may also prompt the development of more aggressive types of cancer. Simply losing those extra pounds and maintaining a healthy BMI (18.5 to 24.9) can significantly reduce cancer risk.
- Reduce saturated and trans fat intake, found in animal products, fried foods, and baked goods. These fats are associated with obesity and are independent risk factors for cancer.
- Eat a high-fibre diet to assist in reaching your natural body weight. Fibre-rich diets may prevent colorectal cancer while improving survival in breast cancer.
- Choose low-glycemic foods to encourage weight loss and reduce elevated blood insulin levels, a factor in the promotion of cancer growth.
Although it cannot be said that stress causes cancer, chronic stress creates an environment within the body that supports cancer progression and may increase cancer risk. While we cannot prevent stressful events from occurring, learning to manage our stress response may mitigate its effect on our health.
- Develop stress management strategies that work for you. Consider journalling, musical or other creative expression, and physical activity.
- Consider mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—an eight-week-long course that effectively decreases stress through meditative practices.
- Ensure that your schedule includes some time to play and have fun!
Keep on moving
A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for cancer development in the colon, breast, and endometrium. Exercise to reduce these risks, while decreasing stress and obesity at the same time.
- Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise every week, completed in intervals of as little as 10 minutes at a time.
- Exercise with a friend to keep you motivated, and try to include some outdoor activity.
The 50s and beyond:
By the time we reach our fifties, we have a pretty good idea of what is normal for our bodies. Deepen this awareness by screening for common cancers while staying aware of signs and symptoms of change in your body.
Screening for many cancers begins in earnest at the age of 50. Blood tests, physical exams, and imaging help to detect these cancers at an early stage. If you have a family history of cancer, your doctor may suggest screening before the age of 50.
- Men: have routine digital rectal exams and blood tests for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) to detect prostate cancer.
- Women: begin routine mammograms and continue to practise breast self-awareness to detect any changes in breast health.
- Everyone: talk to your health care practitioner about screening for colorectal cancer. This may involve a stool test (fecal occult blood test), a colonoscopy, or both.
Trust your instincts
You are ultimately the expert on your own body. If you are noticing changes in your body and feel like something is off, follow it up with your health care practitioner.
- Pay attention to your body: notice changes in moles, unusual bleeding, unexplained fatigue, weight loss, and persistent pain or discomfort.
- Talk to your health care practitioner and insist on satisfactory follow-up.
- Remember that every twinge in your body is not cancer. Many of these symptoms may be explained by benign conditions.
Cancer is a major cause of illness in the Canadian population. Through simple yet powerful lifestyle choices and a heightened awareness of our own physiology, we can take significant steps toward prevention.
Top 5 cancer prevention strategies for all ages
- Apply sunscreen and take supplemental vitamin D.
- Keep your BMI between 18.9 and 24.9.
- Get active, stay active.
- Dine on antioxidants such as turmeric, dark berries, and leafy greens, and cut back on red meat, animal fats, and fried foods.
- Get eight hours of sound sleep nightly.
Common cancer-causing environmental toxins
|outdoor air pollution||car (diesel) and industrial exhaust||lung cancer||monitor air quality reports; don’t exercise in areas of heavy traffic|
|radon||natural breakdown of rocks and soil—accumulates in poorly ventilated indoor spaces||lung cancer||test home radon levels; seal cracks in basement floors and walls; increase air circulation in the rest of the home|
|phthalates||plastics, especially soft plastics such as vinyl (PVC); children’s toys; cosmetics||liver cancer and endocrine disruption (in animal studies)||use glass food storage containers; avoid plastic toys; ask for PVC-free medical equipment|
|chlorine and byproducts||household water use; swimming pools||possible links to bladder and colorectal cancer||filter drinking and bathing water; minimize use of chlorinated pools|