This question is in everybody’s mind and everyday.
Studies have shown that more than 70% of all cancers diagnosed are related to unhealthy lifestyle factors, and almost one third of these cancers are related to diet and lack of exercise. It is estimated that more than half of all cancer cases and deaths worldwide could be prevented by making certain lifestyle changes. Adopting a healthy lifestyle by changing risky personal habits and behaviors can reduce the risk of many cancers significantly. Simple measures such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and practicing safe sex can have a great effect on reducing many common cancers.
Cigarette smoking causes more than 85% of lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women worldwide. Tobacco smoke contains more than 50 chemicals that are known to cause cancer (carcinogens). Smoking increases the risk of many cancers, including cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx (voice box), mouth, lip, tongue, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix. The risk is directly related to the number of cigarettes smoked, number of years a person has smoked and the age when smoking began. Smoking is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for many cancer deaths. Second-hand smoking, also known as environmental tobacco smoke, has also been proven to cause lung cancer in non-smoking adults. Smokeless tobacco (oral tobacco, chewing tobacco or snuff) causes oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancer.
How can we reduce smoking-related cancers?
Quitting smoking is the most important action anyone can take to reduce the risk of lung and other smoking-related cancers. It is estimated that after around 10 years of quitting, an ex-smoker’s risk of dying from lung cancer is 30 to 50% less than the risk of those who continue to smoke. It is never too late to quit and the risk of lung cancer drops significantly after only one year of quitting. It is equally important to avoid second-hand smoking, since this also can increase the risk of lung cancer.
There are many strategies to quit smoking. Going ‘cold turkey’, which means stopping smoking completely without using any smoking substitutes, is worth trying first. This requires willpower and determination to quit. If this is not successful, there are other options, including nicotine replacement therapy and medications. Nicotine replacement therapy is available in the form of skin patches, gums or lozenges. The two medications commonly prescribed to help quit smoking are varenicline (champix) and bupropion (zyban). Patients should see their doctor and discuss quitting strategies. For medications, they require a doctor’s prescription.
Obesity is measured in terms of body mass index (BMI). BMI is a way to see whether somebody’s weight is in healthy range or is overweight or obese. BMI is calculated by the formula of weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared.
BMI = weight/height2
For example, if a person’s weight is 80 kg and height is 1.70 metres, the BMI is 27.6. The WHO classifies BMI according to the following:
- Underweight: BMI of less than 18.5
- Normal weight: BMI of 18.5 to 24.9
- Overweight: BMI of 25 to 29.9
- Obese: BMI of 30 or higher
Researchers have shown that obesity increases the risk of many cancers, including colon, rectum, breast (for postmenopausal women), uterus, kidney, esophagus, pancreas, thyroid and gallbladder cancers.
How can we reduce obesity-related cancers?
Maintaining a healthy body weight by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can reduce the risk of cancers linked with obesity.
An unhealthy diet is a risk factor for many cancers, including bowel, stomach, liver and gallbladder cancer. Diets high in fruits and vegetables have a protective effect against many cancers. Fiber in the diet decreases the transit time of fecal material through the bowel, and thus reduces the contact between some chemicals in the feces that can cause cancer (carcinogens) and the inner lining of the intestine. Vegetables and fruits contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, carotenoids, folic acid and other chemicals called ‘phytochemicals’ that protect the body from many cancers. In contrast, eating large amounts of red and preserved meats may increase the risk of colorectal (bowel) cancers. Diets that contain smoked, salted or pickled foods are believed to increase the risk of stomach cancer.
How can we reduce diet-related cancers?
Diet-related cancers can be reduced by:
- Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Eating meat in moderation, and avoiding processed meats, such as hotdogs and bacon
- Increasing fiber in the diet by eating wholegrain cereals and legumes
- Selecting foods with low fat content, such as lean meat and low fat dairy products
- Eating foods that are low in salt
- Avoiding smoked and pickled foods
- Limiting the consumption of alcoholic drinks
Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of many cancers, including mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, bowel, rectum and breast cancers. The risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. This risk is significantly increased if people drink and smoke at the same time.
How can we reduce alcohol-related cancers?
The following can be done to reduce the risk of alcohol-related cancers:
- People who do not drink should not take up drinking alcohol
- Binge drinking should be avoided
- If a person drinks alcohol, he or she should not smoke
- Drink alcohol within recommended limits—that is, no more than 21 standard drinks per week for men (two to three standard drinks per day) and 14 standard drinks per week for women (one to two standard drinks per day)
Lack of Exercise
Many researchers have shown that lack of exercise is a risk factor for some cancers, including colorectal, breast and endometrial cancers. Exercise can help wastes in the large intestine pass through more quickly, thus reducing contact with cancer-causing agents that increase the risk of bowel cancer. High levels of physical activity may also lower the level of estrogen in the body, which reduces breast cancer risk.
How can we reduce exercise-related cancers?
Regular exercise can reduce the risk of certain cancers. Exercise can be moderate intensity or rigorous. Examples of moderate-intensity exercise include walking briskly, mowing the lawn, swimming, cycling, biking at a casual pace, and playing with children. Rigorous exercise includes running, jogging and playing most sports, such as football, basketball or soccer.
Adults need at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most (or at least five) days each week. Besides doing these exercises (at home or in a gym), people can also do many incidental exercises each day at their own leisure. Incidental exercises are the movements of the body people perform as part of everyday life, such as walking to a friend’s place, rather than driving.
It is beneficial to try some or all of the following exercises every day:
- do not sit idly for more than 30 minutes during the day
- climb stairs, rather than using a lift or escalator
- park one’s car the furthest distance from the shopping centre
- get off the bus one or two stops before one’s regular stop
- stand up to change television channels, rather than using a remote control
- walk to the corner shop a few times each week, or at least during weekends
- play with one’s children whenever possible
- do gardening instead of sitting on the couch
- if one has a treadmill at home, use it, even while watching television or cooking.
Excessive exposure to sunlight increases the risk of many skin cancers, including melanoma. Deliberate exposure of the skin to direct sunlight and tanning the skin using sunlamps and tanning booths are common practices that lead to an increased risk of skin cancers. Avoiding excessive sun exposure, using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding sunlamps and sun booths can reduce the risk of skin cancers.
Researchers have shown that almost 99% of cervical cancer is linked with HPV. The most common type of HPV viruses causing cancer are HPV 16 and 18. HPV also increases the risk of vulva, vagina and penile cancer. Multiple sexual partners and unsafe sexual practices can lead to HPV infections. Hence, HPV infections and cancers linked with HPV, such as cervical cancer, can be reduced by practicing safe sex, and having only one sexual partner. HPV vaccinations are also available to eligible women to protect them from cervical cancer.
Thank you for reading this article.
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