What can I do to reduce my risk for cancer?

  • Two ways to cut your risk of getting cancer is to quit smoking and to limit alcohol consumption.

    Two ways to cut your risk of getting cancer is to quit smoking and to limit alcohol consumption. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer, 2005

By Dr. Evan Lipkis
Special to the Daily Herald
Posted11/17/2014 5:45 AM

Wouldn't it be great to lower your risk of cancer?

Cancer is the leading cause of death between the ages of 40 and 70, followed by heart disease.


While the "Big C" is feared by many, all you need to reduce your risk is to be kind to your body.

So let's look at some practical interventions that are simple and easy to understand.

The new European Code against Cancer (ECC) recently launched outlines of 12 steps individuals can do to reduce their cancer risk. Let's review the ECC recommendations first.


At the top of the list is tobacco. When I began practicing medicine in the early 1980s nearly 40 percent of patients smoked. Due to the no smoking laws on public property and greater awareness, only 20 percent of the nation smokes at this time.

Nevertheless, tobacco remains the prime offender. Secondhand smoke is essentially unfiltered tobacco and may contribute to cancer as well.

Smoking cessation is essential to prevent cancer.

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Pollution increases cancer rates as evidenced by living in big cities. Second hand smoke is much the same as pollution as it is unfiltered, cancer- causing, particulate matter.

The ECC helped review over 1,000 research studies done on five continents. The principal sources of pollution were transportation, power plants, and industrial and agricultural emissions.

Exposure to outdoor air pollution as well as occupational exposures can cause lung cancer and is associated with an increased risk for bladder cancer as well. Of course, prevention can currently be achieved only by moving to smaller cities and environmental policy changes.


Alcohol is a risk factor for cancer. Only small proportions of total cancers seen in men (10%) and women (3%) were attributable to alcohol consumption.


Higher proportions of specific cancers, especially digestive and liver cancers, were attributable to alcohol consumption. Much of the risk attributable to alcohol consumption, however, was associated with heavy consumption (more than two drinks daily for men and more than one drink daily for women). Keep the alcohol consumption under one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men.


Body weight also correlates with more cancer. The more obese you are, the greater the risk.

"Moreover, the risk for cancer increases even with modest weight gain," said Walter C. Willett, M.D., Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willett added that excess body fat increased the risk for cancers of the colon, kidney, and pancreas, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus and endometrium, and breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Regular exercise can lower both weight and cancer risk. Nuts, fruits, vegetables and fiber all fight cancer. In fact, the Mediterranean diet is the best anti-cancer dietary regimen.

UV light

Sun exposure helps increase vitamin D levels, but also increases the risk of skin cancer. The same can be said of tanning beds.

Limiting sun exposure and avoidance of tanning equipment reduces the incidence of skin cancer. Broad spectrum sunscreens help to protect against ultraviolet rays which can damage the skin. A sun protection factor or SPF rating of 15-30 is sufficient for protection against ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Hormones, breast feeding

There is new advice to women that breast-feeding reduces the mother's cancer risk,. Hormone replacement treatment increases the risk for certain cancers (breast, endometrial, and ovarian), and should be curtailed if possible.

Radon gas, asbestos

Radon is a gas that can be detected in homes and may lead to lung cancer. Asbestos is found in old paint and brake linings and contributes to mesothelioma, a rare pleural-based lung cancer.


Another recent recommendation is to have girls vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer, as well as to have newborns vaccinated against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer. We currently have vaccines to prevent both HPV and hepatitis B.

Helicobacter, a bacteria, can cause peptic ulcer disease and lead to lymphomas of the stomach. This bacteria is usually discovered after biopsy of the stomach upon doing upper endoscopy. Once discovered, it can be treated with a regimen of antibiotics.

Participate in cancer screening programs.

Finally, it is a good idea to follow various organized screening programs for breast cancer (mammograms), colorectal cancer (colonoscopy) and cervical cancer (pap smears).

Additional steps

There are other steps to avoid cancer which are not listed by the ECC:

Acid reflux or heartburn. One episode weekly of heartburn can increase esophageal cancer by eight-fold. Losing weight, avoiding caffeine, and decreasing fatty foods can help to curb acid reflux. Medications can also be quite useful such as famotidine (Pepcid) and omeprazole (Prilosec).

Ionizing radiation. Too much radiation from diagnostic tests such as CT scans, angiograms and nuclear stress tests may increase cancer risk as well. Benefits versus risks of such procedures need to be discussed with your doctor.

Non-ionizing radiation. Cell phones and high power electrical wires can emit such radiation but it is debatable if cancer results from such exposure.

Food. Red meat, fatty foods and high sugar intake may increase cancer by elevating inflammation in the body. Inflammation may lead to cellular changes which in turn cause cancer. Diabetes is an elevated inflammatory state that can result in a higher incidence of cancer. Interestingly, coffee and tea might actually prevent some cancers similar to the Mediterranean diet.

Other chemical exposures. Benzene can lead to leukemia, aniline dyes may contribute to bladder cancer and BPA (bis phenol), a chemical found in some plastic bottles, may cause heart disease, obesity and even prostate cancer.

Stress. The association between stress as a cause for cancer presently remains unclear. Many studies do support that our ability to fight cancer is impaired when we are stressed. It is my belief that we will eventually find that cancers are indeed linked to stress, so why not utilize stress reduction techniques? This can include meditation, yoga, deep breathing, self-hypnosis and exercise.

Aspirin. There is direct randomized evidence that aspirin prevents colon polyps and recurrent colon cancer. A daily baby aspirin (81 mg) may also help to prevent breast and lung cancer but more trials are needed. The downside relates to increasing acid reflux and intestinal bleeding.

Supplements. In the Physician's Health Study, men on a multiple vitamin vs. a placebo had a modest reduction in cancer. Small studies have also shown that consumption of green tea reduces breast and prostate cancers but more data is needed.

•Evan Lipkis, MD, is a physician, lecturer and author based in Glenview. The advice contained within this article is for informational purposes only. Readers should consult with a physician to evaluate any illness or medical condition. Contact Dr. Lipkis through his web site at: www.DrLipkis.com

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