Cancer is Preventable!

By Dr. Shyamali Singhal, MD, PhD, Chief Medical Officer, Apricity Health;
Co-Chair of the GWI Wellness for Cancer Initiative

In this month where all of us have breast cancer on our minds, it seems that all of us know someone with cancer. It seems so much more common than ever before. As a surgical oncologist, every day I wish we did not have so many patients with cancer. If there was something we could do to decrease risk, we all should do it.

In the US in 2018 there and estimated 1.73 million new cases of cancer diagnosed and 600,000 of those will die of the disease. The most common cancers in descending order of frequency breast, lung, prostate, colon and rectum, melanoma, bladder, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer and liver cancer. 

We talk about genetic origins of cancer which really only account for about 10% of patients and cannot be modified. What is less well known is that 30-50% of new cancer diagnoses are preventable with minimal changes to your lifestyle. The two obvious lifestyle ones are 1) quit smoking and 2) stay out of the sun.  The less obvious, diet and exercise have tremendous impact on the risk of developing cancer.   

We recommend a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, exercise to exceed 150 minutes a week, and maintaining BMI less than 25.

Cancer Prevention Recommendations

These 10 cancer prevention recommendations are drawn from the  AICR/WCRF Third Expert Report.

1. Be A Healthy Weight 

Keep your weight within the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life. Next to not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of cancer. Aim to be at the lower end of the healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) range. Body fat doesn’t just sit there on our waists–it acts like a ‘hormone pump’ releasing insulin, estrogen and other hormones into the bloodstream, which can spur cancer growth. See Recommendations 2 and 3 for strategies for weight management.

2. Be Physically Active

Be physically active as part of everyday life–walk more and sit less. Physical activity in any form helps to lower cancer risk. Aim to build more activity, like brisk walking, into your daily routine. As well as helping us avoid weight gain, activity itself can help to prevent cancer. Studies show that regular activity can help to keep hormone levels in check, which is important because having high levels of some hormones can increase your cancer risk. For maximum health benefits, scientists recommend that we aim for 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, physical activity a week. Emerging research is showing that extended periods of inactivity–sitting at a computer, watching tv, etc.–increase many indicators for cancer risk. Break up your day by getting up and walking around a few minutes every hour.

3. Eat A Diet Rich In Whole Grains, Vegetables, Fruits And Beans

Make whole grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils a major part of your usual daily diet. Basing our diets around plant foods (like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans), which contain fiber and other nutrients, can reduce our risk of cancer. For good health, we recommend that we base all of our meals on plant foods. When preparing a meal, aim to fill at least two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. As well as containing vitamins and minerals, plant foods are good sources of substances called phytochemicals. These are biologically active compounds, which can help to protect cells in the body from damage that can lead to cancer. Plant foods can also help us to maintain a healthy weight because many of them are lower in energy density (calories).

4. Limit Consumption Of “Fast Foods” And Other Processed Foods High In Fat, Starches Or Sugars 

Limiting these foods helps control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight. There is strong evidence that consuming “fast-foods” and a “Western-type” diet are causes of weight gain, overweight and obesity, which are linked to 12 cancers. Glycemic load also increases risk for endometrial cancer.

5. Limit Consumption Of Red And Processed Meat

Eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb. Eat little, if any, processed meat. The evidence that red meat (beef, pork and lamb) is a cause of colorectal cancer is convincing. Studies show, however, that we can consume modest amounts–12 to 18 ounces (cooked) per week–without a measurable increase in colorectal cancer risk. But when it comes to processed meat (ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs, sausages) the evidence is just as convincing, and cancer risk begins to increase with even very low consumption. This is why the expert panel advises limiting red meat and avoiding processed meat. 

6. Limit Consumption Of Sugar-Sweetened Drinks

Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks. There is strong evidence that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes weight gain, overweight and obesity, linked to 12 cancers. Sugar-sweetened beverages provide energy, but may not influence appetite in the same way as food does and can promote overconsumption of calories. 

7. Limit Alcohol Consumption

For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. Previous research has shown that modest amounts of alcohol may have a protective effect against coronary heart disease. But for cancer prevention, the evidence is clear and convincing: alcohol in any form is a potent carcinogen. It’s linked to 6 different cancers. The best advice for those concerned about cancer is not to drink. If you do choose to drink alcohol, however, limit your consumption to one drink for women and two for men per day. 

8. Do Not Use Supplements For Cancer Prevention

Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone. For most people, it is possible to obtain adequate nutrition from a healthy diet that includes the right foods and drinks. The panel doesn’t discourage the use of multivitamins or specific supplements for those sub-sections of the population who stand to benefit from them, such as women of childbearing age and the elderly. They simply caution against expecting any dietary supplement to lower cancer risk as well as a healthy diet can. High-dose beta-carotene supplements have been linked to an increased risk for lung cancer in current and former smokers. It’s always best to discuss any dietary supplement with your doctor or a registered dietitian. 

9. For Mothers: Breastfeed Your Baby, If You Can

Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby. According to the expert report, breastfeeding benefits both mother and child. There is strong evidence that breastfeeding helps protect against breast cancer in the mother. There are likely two reasons for this. First, breastfeeding lowers the levels of some cancer-related hormones in the mother’s body. Second, at the end of breastfeeding, the body gets rid of any cells in the breast that may have DNA damage. In addition, babies who are breastfed are less likely to become overweight and obese. Overweight and obese children tend to remain overweight in adult life. If you’re planning to breastfeed your baby, your doctor or certified lactation consultant will be able to provide more information and support.

10. After A Cancer Diagnosis: Follow Our Recommendations, If You Can.

Check with your health professional about what is right for you.

Shyamali Mallick Singhal, M.D., Ph.D. Surgical Oncologist
650-641 7861