That’s the number you need to know. The American Cancer Society recently published the Annual Age-Adjusted Cancer Death Rates by Sex, United States, 1975-2015. The report provides a detailed review of the expected cancer incidence in 2018 and provides a breakdown by gender. It even breaks it down by state and cancer type if you’re interested.

Why is 42% important? Because after reviewing all that scientific data, 42% is the number of cancer cases and deaths that are attributed to “Potentially Modifiable Risk Factors.”  What are the modifiable risk factors to prevent cancer? Here are the big ones:

  1. Cigarette smoking
  2. Excess body weight
  3. Alcohol intake
  4. Consumption of red/processed meat
  5. Low consumption of fruits and vegetables
  6. Low consumption of dietary fiber
  7. Physical inactivity
  8. UV radiation
  9. Infections (human papilloma virus, HIV, hepatitis C)

I should also mention that in conclusion, the authors note the results, “may underestimate the overall proportion of cancers attributable to modifiable factors because the impact of all established risk factors could not be quantified.” Basically, the oncology community thinks way more than 42% of your cancer risk can be decreased by changing the 9 behaviors listed above, but the list is really hard to study because it’s all interrelated. Human beings also, let’s face it, are not always honest about their behaviors.

cancer prevention risk factors

As a radiation oncologist, many patients ask, “Why me?” Cancer patients receiving a new diagnosis often report feeling like a victim. Many high performing people struggle with the lack of control in their treatment. So what can you control about cancer? How can you “fight” your cancer and not just rely on medical doctors to hand down treatments and prescriptions? Let’s go back to the 9 items listed above which are scientifically shown to alter you and your loved ones’ risk.

First the basics:

  • Don’t smoke. Ever. If you smoke (or use tobacco products) use every available resource to stop. Techniques to consider outside of nicotine patches/gum are: acupuncture, hypnosis, and meditation. Finally, and this one can be tough, if your friends and family really want to help you in your fight against cancer, ask them to not smoke in your presence and respect your need to be away from an environment that might prompt you to pick up a cigarette (like a bar, or game of pool).
  • Obesity – now the #2 cause of cancer. I won’t bother with dieting advice because dieting doesn’t work. Here’s what I will tell you; rather than worry about calories and how much you are eating, focus on making better choices.

cancer prevention nutrition

Better Choices and how to address risk factors #4-6:

  • Fruits and vegetables. You need 7-9 servings per day, preferably more vegetables than fruit. Half your plate should be a fruit or vegetable every time you eat. If you are doing this, and I mean really doing this, then it’s going to be very hard to be obese. It’s also going to ensure you get a lot of dietary fiber, calcium, and other micronutrients. And finally, you will not have much room for red or processed meat intake.
  • Moderate alcohol intake. A drink or two daily is okay, but an entire bottle of wine is not. Neither is a 6 pack. Replace the alcohol with something else but before you do that, figure out why you need the drink in the first place. Ever heard of H.A.L.T? Look into it, as it’s a good question to ask yourself before you pour that next drink.
  • Physical inactivity. You don’t have to go to a gym, and you don’t have to stream the latest yoga or pilates workout from your phone. What you have to do is MOVE and PLAY. My tips:
  1. Take the stairs – always.
  2. Carry heavy grocery bags to your car, and then carry them up the stairs. A little short of breath? Arms struggling to keep hold? Good.
  3. Find the farthest parking place from the door. Yep, the FARTHEST one away.
  4. Walk your dog – as much as possible.
  5. Play with your kids. Actually play. Run around, jump up and down, try to balance on things, get dirty. Do a cartwheel.

cancer prevention exercise

I tell you this to remind you that physical activity is not about “losing weight”. Get out of that mindset. Your body is made for movement. Sitting on the couch watching TV can kill you.

I’ve addressed UV radiation and infection in prior blogs. Feel free to check them out.

Patient-focused treatment, and an individualized approach to oncology means Dr. Norleena Gullett is not just treating cancer, she's treating the whole person.