New Year’s resolutions often revolve around making healthier lifestyle choices that help us look and feel better, such as shedding extra pounds and exercising more. But adopting healthy habits, or abandoning unhealthy ones, can also have an impact on our risk of developing cancer. While there isn’t always a simple cause-and-effect relationship between lifestyle and cancer, factors that are within our control, such as tobacco use, obesity, alcohol consumption, sun exposure, and others, are known to influence the risk of certain forms of cancer—in some cases significantly.
According to Dr. Mark Burton of The Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers, the best example of a lifestyle choice that is clearly associated with cancer risk is cigarette smoking, which is linked to approximately 90% of lung cancer cases. “In addition, smoking is associated with numerous other cancers, including head and neck, esophageal, kidney, and several other forms,” he explains.
Quitting smoking at any point will lower lung cancer risk, though those who have smoked and quit remain at higher risk than those who have never smoked. “Furthermore, smokers who develop lung cancer and continue to smoke have a higher chance of developing a new smoking-related cancer than those who stop smoking,” Dr. Burton adds.
Studies have also revealed a significant link between alcohol consumption and the risk of several forms of cancer, including head and neck, esophageal, breast, liver, and colon cancers. What’s more, people who use both alcohol and tobacco are at even greater risk of developing certain cancers than those who use either one or the other alone. To minimize alcohol-related cancer risk, it’s currently advised that men consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per day, and women no more than one drink per day.
Though the relationship is not completely understood, evidence suggests that being obese causes an uptick in the risk of developing certain types of cancer, specifically breast cancer, colon cancer, and endometrial cancer. So, resolving to lose excess weight will not only improve your cardiovascular health, reduce stress on your joints, and make you look and feel better, but it may lower your overall cancer risk as well.
Dr. Burton also reminds HLN readers that tanning and sun exposure are directly associated with an increased risk of developing various forms of skin cancer, the most common being basal cell carcinoma. The good news is, there are simple precautions you can take to protect your skin from harmful UV rays and minimize your skin cancer risk. They include applying sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 before spending time in the sun and reapplying it often; donning a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays before heading out into the sun; shunning tanning booths; and staying indoors or in the shade between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.
Worldwide, one of the more common health concerns is liver cancer associated with the hepatitis C or hepatitis B virus. Both are spread through exposure to the blood or blood products of an infected individual. Lifestyle choices that decrease the risk of developing either form of hepatitis include avoiding unprotected sex and avoiding sharing needles.
It’s also noteworthy that avoiding unprotected sexual contact is the best way to avoid exposure to human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer, mouth and throat cancer, and various other cancer types. “There are also vaccines for both hepatitis B and HPV that provide long-term protection against these viruses, thereby reducing the risk of developing associated cancers,” Dr. Burton adds.
Though adopting healthier habits—eating better, exercising more, quitting smoking, etc.—can help protect against certain forms of cancer, it’s important to keep in mind that the benefits of a healthier lifestyle aren’t necessarily going to be evident immediately. Just as lifestyle-related cancers, such as lung cancer associated with smoking, often take many years to develop, the benefits of positive lifestyle changes tend to accrue over the long term. Nonetheless, people who eat right, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, and limit their alcohol consumption have a better chance of remaining cancer-free than those who don’t adopt healthy habits. And if they do end up developing cancer, they may be better poised than their less-healthy peers to tolerate the treatment regimen. ❦