Cancer can be prevented with lifestyle changes

According to a 2016 analysis in the American Cancer Society's journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, cancer death rates are on the decline in the U.S.

In fact, between 1991 and 2012, the cancer death rate for men and women combined fell an astounding 23 percent. Yet despite this good news, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in America, resulting in 585,000 deaths in 2014 alone (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). It's vital, then, that doctors continue research into new and exciting breakthroughs in preventing and treating most types of cancer. 

Cancer prevented lifestyle

"There were 585,000 cancer deaths in 2014."

In the continued pursuit of that goal, a team from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have made an important discovery. In the May 2016 edition of the journal JAMA Oncology, that research collective revealed that lifestyle changes can prevent many cancer diagnoses.

Simplicity is key

The study was headed up by Dr. Mingyang Song from MIH and Harvard's Dr. Edward Giovannucci. The pair analyzed 20 years of data from 136,000 white men and women, all of whom had been enrolled in either the Nurses' Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Each participant was then identified as high-risk (practicing several unhealthy habits) and low-risk (most led a healthy lifestyle). The scientists had a narrow idea of what constituted a healthy lifestyle:

  • Drinking no more than one alcoholic beverage per day.
  • Exercising at least 150 minutes per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity).
  • A BMI between 18.5 and 27.5.

By crunching the numbers, the two researchers found that 20 to 40 percent of cancer cases and nearly 50 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented with a few simple healthy lifestyle changes. Compared to the low-risk group, women in the high-risk category were 25 percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, and 48 percent more likely to die. Men in the high-risk group, meanwhile, were 33 percent more likely to get cancer and 44 percent more likely to die.

It's worth noting that every participant is a member of the health care field, and are thus more likely to make health-conscious decisions. Song and Giovannucci estimated that if they extrapolated to the general public, these lifestyle changes could prevent anywhere between 40 and 70 percent of all cancer deaths.

A changing of the guard

Dr. Graham A. Colditz and Siobhan Sutcliffe both work as public health researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and were not involved with the aforementioned JAMA Oncology study. In an accompanying editorial, the pair explained that this research proves cancer is not only preventable, but that people need to adjust their opinions of the disease's onset.

"As a society, we need to avoid procrastination induced by thoughts that chance drives all cancer risk or that new medical discoveries are needed to make major gains against cancer. Instead we must embrace the opportunity to reduce our collective cancer toll by implementing effective prevention strategies and changing the way we live."

"Eat less refined sugar and processed meats."

Most of the lifestyle changes involved are relatively simple and straightforward. Perhaps the most effective of these is switching up your diet, according to the Mayo Clinic. That means eating loads of fruits, vegetables and other plant sources (like beans and whole grains). It's also crucial to avoid refined sugar, processed meats and harmful habits like smoking and drinking. Meanwhile, eMedicine explained that regular checkups can be pivotal for preventing cancer. Screenings like a colonoscopy, for instance, can catch the problem early. The same goes for regular vaccinations, including HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer in women.

Before making any lifestyle changes, it's important to consult with your physician.