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How to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

December 30, 2020

The lifetime likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer is about 40%, according to 2020 data from the American Cancer Society. That number is higher for people with specific risk factors. For example, men are most likely to get prostate cancer, and women are at a higher risk for breast cancer. There are some healthful, preventive measures you can take against cancer, but the information can seem overwhelming.

Although there is no proven cancer prevention strategy, certain lifestyle choices may reduce your cancer risk. This article highlights information about who is at risk, different diagnostic tests and treatment options and potential lifestyle changes that may reduce your chance of getting cancer.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of diseases that occur when cells in the body divide and multiply abnormally. This growth infiltrates and damages body tissue. Cancer is named for the part of the body in which it starts. However, cancer can spread from where it began to elsewhere in the body, known as metastasis.

Common types of cancer

Lung cancer

Smoking causes most types of lung cancer, but nonsmokers can also develop this disease. While the rate of lung cancer incidence is dropping for many men, 228,820 new cases are projected this year, with 135,720 deaths.

Melanoma

While skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, there are several different types. Melanoma is much less common than the others, but is a severe form of skin cancer that is likely to invade nearby tissue and metastasize.

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, and it begins in the basal cells. It often presents as a painless raised area that may be shiny, ulcerated or red. While it’s damaging to the tissue, it is unlikely to spread to distant sites.

Colon cancer

Colon cancer occurs in the lower end of the digestive tract and the 3rd leading cause of cancer-related deaths.  The National Cancer Institute projects 147,950 new cases of colorectal cancer this year and 53,200 deaths.

Colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is a type of colon cancer involving the rectum, which connects the anus to the large intestine.

Breast cancer

After skin cancer, breast cancer is the 2nd most common cancer in women. Unfortunately, about 276,480 women and 2,620 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 42,170 women and 520 men die from the disease. Breast cancer forms in breast cells and is frequently identified by special X-ray imaging of the breast called a mammogram.

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States. It occurs in the small, walnut-sized gland that produces seminal fluid.

Uterine cancer

The most common type of uterine cancer is endometrial cancer, which occurs in the uterine lining. It has an overall survival rate of 65% after 5 years. The other type of uterine cancer, uterine sarcoma, is more aggressive.

Bladder cancer

Bladder cancer begins in the urothelial cells that line the inside of your bladder. Bladder cancer is usually diagnosed at an early stage when the cancer is most treatable.

What are the leading risk factors of cancer?

Some people are more at risk for cancer than others. The most common risk factors for all types of cancer include:

  • Aging
  • Tobacco use or second-hand smoke
  • Sun exposure
  • Radiation exposure
  • Exposure to chemicals and other substances, known as carcinogens
  • Some viruses or bacteria, such as H. pylori, hepatitis or the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Hormones
    • Being exposed to estrogen for longer periods of time, like hormone replacement therapy (HRT) estrogen without progesterone, early menstruation, late menopause, or never giving birth, may
  • increase the risk for endometrial and breast cancer.
  • A family history of cancer
  • Alcohol abuse
  • An unhealthy diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Being overweight
  • Chronic inflammation, like ulcerative colitis
  • Immunosuppressive drugs
    • Those who take immunosuppressive drugs for an organ transplant or have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are at an increased risk.

What can you do to reduce your risk of cancer?


While there are genetic factors that people are born with that may predispose them to cancer, there are lifestyle factors that you can follow to reduce your risk of cancer.

  • Don’t use tobacco
  • Eat a healthy diet including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean meat like fish
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Be physically active at least 30 minutes each day
  • Protect yourself from the sun
  • Get vaccinated
  • Avoid risky behaviors
  • Get regular medical care

How do I keep myself healthy?

Staying healthy means maintaining health for your mind, body and soul. Studies show that caring for one’s emotional and spiritual health can improve the likelihood of surviving cancer. While the above behaviors will improve your physical health, it may also be beneficial to:

  • See a therapist
  • Connect with nature
  • Get involved with a community or church
  • Address anxiety, depression and pain
  • Spend time with loved ones
Woman meeting with support services.

Treating cancer with more than medicine

Our approach to cancer care includes support services for the mind, body and spirit. Research shows this approach provides better outcomes.

Whole person care

What foods fight cancer cells?

Antioxidants found in certain foods may help fight cancer cells (oxidants). These superfoods include:

  • Pomegranate
  • Acai
  • Citrus foods
  • Apples
  • Berries like blackberries and blueberries
  • Fish
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Carrots
  • Fish, especially fatty ones like mackerel, salmon or anchovies
  • Walnuts
  • Legumes

What vitamins help prevent cancer?

There has been a lot of research regarding vitamins and supplements that support immunity and prevent cancer. Taking vitamin D supplements regularly may have some benefits in decreasing cancer risk.

Eating a wide variety of foods rich in vitamins A, C, E may decrease breast cancer risk. However, taking these vitamin supplements may not be as positive as eating whole foods. Also, vitamin C may blunt the effects of some cancer treatments, and high levels of a precursor of vitamin A may increase the risk of lung cancer in some populations. Discuss taking any vitamin supplements with your healthcare provider if you are trying to prevent cancer.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Most healthy patients have preventive screening for the diseases they may be at risk for, including cancer. Cancer screening can identify a problem before symptoms ever occur. The following screening and diagnostic tests help identify and diagnose cancer:

Screening tests

  • Lung cancer: For smokers between the ages of 55-74, a type of imaging called low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) can help diagnose lung cancer and increase the survival rate.
  • Cervical cancer: Pap and HPV testing.
  • Colon cancer: Colonoscopy to identify and remove polyps in the large intestine.
  • Lab tests: Samples of blood, urine, tissue or other body fluids. Testing for cancer may consist of drawing blood for tumor markers.

Imaging tests

  • CT scan uses an X-ray machine linked to a computer that takes images of organs from multiple angles to create a 3-dimensional diagram of the area of concern.
    • Some scans require a contrast dye that is either swallowed or given through an intravenous (IV) catheter into your vein. The dye highlights the organs and enables it to be easily seen.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to generate images of parts of the body that can't be seen as well with X-rays, CT or ultrasound.
    • Some MRIs may require use of contrast dye.
  • Nuclear (radionuclide) scan requires an injection of radioactive material (tracer) into your bloodstream. It collects in a specific place and then takes a picture inside of the specific area on the computer screen.
    • Bone scans are nuclear scans that check for abnormal areas in the bones.
    • PET scans are nuclear scans that make 3-dimensional images of areas where glucose (sugar) is used. Since cancer uses up more glucose than healthy cells, it can be visualized.
  • Ultrasound (or sonogram) uses sound waves to create a picture in the body.
  • X-rays are low-dose radiation used to generate images of tissues and structures inside the body.

Biopsies

A biopsy involves removing a tissue or fluid sample from a region of your body. A pathologist then examines the sample under a microscope, performing tests to identify if the cells are cancerous.

  • Colonoscopy: Biopsy of polyps found in the colon.
  • Bronchoscopy: Evaluates tissue samples in the lung.
    Surgery
    • Excisional: Removal of the cancerous tissue and the healthy cells surrounding it.
    • Incisional: Removing only a part of the lump or cancerous region.

How is cancer treated?

The type of cancer treatment used depends on the type, how far it has advanced, and where it is located. However, the primary ways to treat cancer are:

  • Surgery removes cancer from your body by a surgeon.
  • Radiation (external or internal) involves high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Chemotherapy involves drugs infused into your bloodstream to kill cancer cells throughout your body.
  • Immunotherapy helps the immune system fight cancer by activating or suppressing specific immune responses.
  • Blood and bone marrow transplants replace the abnormal blood-forming cells with healthy stem cells
  • Targeted therapy attacks the cellular modifications that promote cancer cells' growth, division and spread.
  • Hormone therapy slows or stops the growth of breast and prostate cancers that rely on hormones to multiply.
Three happy men talking.

More options, more hope

Many new therapies are available through clinical trials. Find out how you may benefit from a clinical trial, and what it can do for others.

Why join

Can you fully recover from cancer?

Yes, it is possible to recover from cancer. However, the definition of recovery means to return to a normal, healthy state of body and mind. Following a cancer diagnosis, both your mind and body will take a toll. 

From a physical perspective, cancer recovery is more likely when it is diagnosed in the early stages. As cancer advances, the chances of recovery decrease. The more advanced cancer, the more significant the treatment plan.

Many cancers that recur do so in the first 2 years following treatment. After 5 years, it is less likely to come back. However, your cancer team will often use the term remission because some types may return many years after diagnosis. 

Why choose The University Of Kansas Cancer Center for cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Trusting any hospital with something as critical as your health and cancer care is a big choice. The University of Kansas Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.  Our highly-trained multidisciplinary care team focuses on treating the whole person, not just their disease. This includes the support we provide for nutrition, mental and emotional health and financial issues, to name a few.

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