What can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?

Take the following steps to reduce your risk of developing cancer.

Be a non smoker and avoid second hand smoke.

  • Smoking causes about 27% of all cancer deaths in Canada. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for men and women in Canada. Smoking also increases your risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, cervix, pancreas, esophagus, colon, rectum, kidney, bladder and acute myeloid leukemia.

    Non smokers who are exposed to second hand smoke are also at higher risk of getting lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Health Canada estimates that more than 300 non-smokers die from lung cancer each year because of second hand smoke.

Eat a healthy diet

  • Research suggests as much as one-third of all cancers may be related to what we eat and drink. Eat 5 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit a day. Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruit supplies your body with a whole range of cancer fighting compounds such as phytochemicals and antioxidants. Eat plenty of whole-grain fibres and keep your dietary fat intake low. Unsaturated fats are a healthy choice because they appear to protect against diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Saturated fats and trans fats (partly hydrogenated fat) are potentially harmful fats that may increase blood cholesterol levels and possibly increase the risk of cancer. For a healthy diet, balance your daily meals with foods from the 4 food groups described in Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide and consume quantities that maintain a healthy weight. If you drink alcohol, limit your consumption to 1 to 2 drinks per day. Too much alcohol is known to damage the liver, promote high blood pressure and increase the risk of some types of cancer. Alcohol increases the risk of breast, colorectal, liver and oral cancers. If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, avoid alcohol.

Reduce your exposure to charred meats.

  • Cooking meat at high temperatures creates certain chemicals (called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs) that may cause cancer. When fat from meat, poultry or fish burns, chemicals are formed that are deposited onto the food from the smoke.
    • Ideally, cook meat, poultry, and seafood at lower temperatures by braising, stewing, steaming or roasting.
  • If you barbecue, choose leaner cuts of meat, poultry, and seafood. Trim off visible fat. This will reduce the amount of harmful chemicals that develop from the smoke created by burning fat. A healthy diet is low in saturated and trans fats. Minimize consumption of red meat and processed meat.
    • To prevent charring, barbecue slowly and keep the food away from the hot coals so that flames are less likely to engulf the food.
    • Studies have shown that marinating meat, even for just 10-20 minutes, can prevent the formation of cancer-causing chemicals by as much as 90%. Use an oil-free marinade that contains a strong acid like lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.

Be physically active on a regular basis.

  • Studies strongly suggest that exercise reduces your risk of colon and breast cancer. Less compelling evidence links exercise to a reduced risk of a number of other cancers, including prostate and ovarian cancer. Obesity is a risk factor for many cancers. Restricting caloric intake and increased physical activity are important to control obesity.

Protect yourself and your family from the sun.

  • Skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in Canada. Protect yourself and your family from sun particularly between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are at their strongest, or any time when the ultraviolet light (UV) index is 3 or more. Look for shade or create your own. Wear a hat, sunglasses (UVA and UVB protection), and protective clothing. Wear sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher). Keep babies under 12 months out of direct sunlight. Check your skin regularly and report any changes to your doctor.

    Just like the sun, tanning beds and sun lamps release ultraviolet (UV) rays that trigger the tanning process in the skin. This causes skin damage, such as sunburns, premature aging, and cataracts. Sunburns, either from the sun's rays or from tanning beds and lamps, are linked to the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers and malignant melanoma.

Follow cancer screening guidelines.

  • Even people with healthy lifestyles can develop cancer. One way to detect cancer early is to have regular screening tests. These tests can often find cancer when it is still at an early stage, or may even detect pre-cancerous lesions which can be removed before they become cancerous. The earlier the cancer is found, the more successful the treatment is likely to be.

    For women, have mammograms and Pap tests are suggested. Females between 9 and 26 years of age should have the HPV vaccine.

    For men, talk about testicular exams and prostate screening with a health professional.

    Both men and women between the ages of 50 and 69 should be screened for colorectal cancer.

Visit your doctor or dentist if you notice any change in your normal state of health.

  • Know your body and report any changes to your doctor or dentist as soon as possible (for example, sores that don't heal, a cough that goes on for more than 4 weeks or a change in bowel habits). Health care professionals are trained to spot the early warning signs of cancer and other diseases.

Follow health and safety instructions at home and at work when using, storing, and disposing of hazardous materials.

  • At home and at work make sure you follow safety instructions when using, storing, and disposing of household pesticides or any other chemicals.

    Health Canada and Environment Canada have guidelines for handling cancer causing substances. By following these guidelines you can protect yourself against the risk posed by these materials. These guidelines are printed on the packaging and posted in workplaces.

Additional resources

Prepared by the Canadian Cancer Society. This information appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.

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