No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but we still have a lot to learn about what exactly causes one person, and not another, to contract the disease. Though we don’t have all the answers, experts like Dr. Ukoha, from Chair of the Division of CardioThoracic Surgery at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, have some insight into what factors may increase your risk. He spoke with us about the top things that may decrease your cancer risk, as well as debunked some misconceptions.

What is the #1 thing you can do to decrease your cancer risk? 

There are several things that we can do to deter the occurrence of cancer, but I would say the number one thing is not to smoke. We are not only worried about primary smokers, but also anyone who is sharing the space with them and may breathe in secondhand smoke. Though research is still being done, initial findings suggest that this includes the use of e-cigarettes, which are newer on the market. This is especially true for lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

For lung cancer specifically, there are other environmental and occupational factors that can also play a role. For instance, the second leading cause of lung cancer is radon, which can be found in many homes and office buildings. This is why you should have your home checked regularly.

Dangerous toxins such as asbestos, benzene, cadmium, nickel, vinyl chloride, benzidine, or silica for instance, are other substances that can increase your risk of cancer if you are exposed to them. Though these toxins may be less common in the last 40-50 years, they are still around and represent a particular environmental and occupational hazard. So, it is essential for workers to wear the appropriate protective gear no matter how old or healthy they may be.

Does diet affect your cancer risk? 

Maintaining a healthy body weight and diet is one way that anyone can decrease their cancer risk. A healthy diet usually consists of mostly plant-based foods. Research suggests that we should limit our consumption of red meat to less than 11 oz per week. This means trying instead to substitute red meat with poultry and seafood. Literature also tells us to limit our consumption of processed meats like sausage, bacon and deli meats. Other things to limit are the consumption of alcohol, sugary drinks and salt.

Does exercise affect your cancer risk?

Besides diet, maintaining a healthy body weight requires regular exercise. Health professionals normally agree that at least 30 minutes a day is good practice. This does not have to be high-intensity exercise, even taking a daily brisk walk can make a difference.

Are there cancer vaccines?

There are some vaccines that have been known to prevent cancer. For instance, the human papilloma virus (HPV) can protect at risk individuals from 11-26 years of age. The hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended because chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection can lead to liver cancer. But at the moment there is no vaccine to prevent lung cancer. However, getting regularly vaccinated against diseases for which vaccines are recommended is a good way to keep your body healthy.

What are some things that people think are linked to cancer that actually aren’t?

  • There's been no evidence that artificial sweeteners are linked to any type of cancer. In fact, sweeteners go through a rigorous process and need to be approved by the FDA before they are put on the market.
  • There is no evidence that caffeine places you at higher risk for cancer. The chemicals that are used during the coffee roasting or brewing process are all monitored and there is no link to cancer.
  • There is no link between genetically modified foods (GMOs) and cancer.
  • Current research shows no evidence that microwaving food causes cancer.
  • Sleep issues have not been directly linked to cancer risk, though not getting enough sleep can affect your immune system, so it may ultimately contribute to other problems.

Should people get genetic/biomarker testing to predict cancer risk?

Getting a biomarker test does not predict whether or not you are going to have cancer. It just shows whether you are at higher risk. If there is someone in your family who has a cancer mutation, that is when your healthcare provider may suggest that the family get tested, just to assess the risk and help your doctor follow people at high-risk more closely. That way, if something does happen, we can detect it at an early stage.

Lastly, Dr. Ukoha says that stressing about cancer is the last thing that you want to do. “If you worry about cancer, just like worrying about a car accident, you may be paralyzed and unable to live your life to the fullest.” So instead, he suggests making healthy choices and not skipping your regular check-ups. That way your healthcare provider can detect any problems that may occur early enough for curative treatment. For cancer specifically, early detection is key, so getting treated as soon as possible is the best way to improve your outcome.

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