I have railed against pseudoscientific charlatans who claim that they have the easy way to reduce cancer risk (or even cure it). Generally, these snake oil salesmen try to convince you that they have some miraculous food, supplement, spiritual energy, and on and on, that can either kill cancer in its tracks or keep them from even growing in your body.
Of course, none of their claims are actually supported by robust science. On the other hand, real science has 12 evidence-based methods to actually prevent cancer.
What about avoiding GMO foods because they cause cancer? Again, studies show that GMO foods have no effect on cancers.
Oh, one more thing – bananas don’t have tumor necrosis factor, and the yellow fruit can’t prevent or cure cancer (but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t delicious).
Despite the absolute lack of evidence that supplements, kale, bananas, or drinking the pure waters of a glacial fed stream (which may not be an option with climate change), there are only a few things that can be done to manage your overall risk of cancer.
The “how to reduce cancer risk list” has been codified by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) into 12 steps (no, not that debunked one) that are called the European Code Against Cancer.
Let’s look at cancer and the methods to reduce cancer risk.
- 1 What is cancer?
- 2 Reduce cancer risk #1 – Stop smoking
- 3 #2 – Stay away from second-hand smoke
- 4 Reduce cancer risk #3 – Get vaccinated
- 5 #4 – Maintain a healthy weight
- 6 #5 – Be physically active
- 7 #6 – Eat a “healthy” diet
- 8 #7 – Avoid drinking alcohol
- 9 #8 – Avoid UV radiation
- 10 #9 – Avoid environmental pollutants
- 11 #10 – Avoid radiation
- 12 #11 – Breastfeed
- 13 #12 – Regular cancer screening
- 14 Prevent cancer – the TL;DR version
- 15 Notes
- 16 Key citations:
What is cancer?
There are so many myths about cancer which contribute to a lot of the pseudoscientific nonsense pushed by scam artists on the internet. So, let’s digest the millions of pieces of research about cancer into a few paragraphs.
Simply, cancer is a disease in which cells of the body grow in an uncontrolled way, forming a tumor that may spread to different parts of the body. There may be around 200 types of cancer, though many have subtypes that mean there could be over a thousand types of cancer.
All cancers are essentially related to mutations in the DNA of cells in the body, which can be random or caused by environmental factors. Most of the time, cells deal with these mutations by “fixing” the DNA.
Or the mutation is so serious that the cell simply dies (it’s really one cell, and cells die in your body constantly). If the mutated cell lives and divides, the body has immune defenses against most mutations – so it’s gone before you would even know that it’s there.
This means that mutations that help those cancer cells survive are selected for (yes, in an almost “natural selection” sense). But let’s get back to the causes since the whole point of this article is to discuss methods to prevent cancer.
Many researchers accept that most genetic mutations that lead to cancer are more or less random, just bad luck. In this 2017 study, the authors analyzed data for 32 cancer types and found that approximately two-thirds (67%) of the mutations found in these cancers resulted from random or spontaneous errors in the DNA.
You might think that it’s impossible to believe that 67% of cancers are just random, bad luck. Let’s just look at the math, revolving around the law of large numbers.
Even though people believe that their cells are “perfect” in replicating themselves, that’s not true. Errors may occur in human cells anywhere from 0.0001% to as high as 1% of base pairs.
That could mean billions of mutations, although most are corrected by cellular machinery, it still means millions of mutations over an individual’s lifetime that could lead to cancer.
On the other hand, outside agents, like infections, tobacco smoke, radiation (more broadly than just radioactive energy, but ultraviolet and other types of radiation), and human physiology can cause (or allow to cause) so many mutations that eventually one leads to an increase in the number of mutated cells, then a growing viable cancer.
Given this information, there are a number of ways to reduce cancer risk – let’s jump into this information.
Reduce cancer risk #1 – Stop smoking
This is the number one way to reduce your risk of cancer–smoking causes lung cancer, which is the #1 cancer killer in the US and Europe. In fact, smokers are 15-30X more likely to contract and die of lung cancer than non-smokers.
This isn’t something that we’ve known just for a couple of years, but since before the 1950s. And it’s not just smoking tobacco that increases the risk of cancer–using it in other forms, such as smokeless tobacco can contribute to significantly higher risks of cancer.
But the good news is that the sooner one quits using tobacco products the better the long term prognosis. Studies have shown that smokers who quit at about age 30 reduce their chance of dying prematurely from smoking-related diseases by more than 90 percent.
#2 – Stay away from second-hand smoke
Even if you avoid smoking personally, second-hand smoke has nearly the same cancer risk, depending on the frequency of encountering smoke. In the USA, inhaling cigarette smoke, unless one is a smoker, has become relatively rare.
But in Europe, even with official bans on smoking, the risk of encountering second-hand smoke can vary by country and location from 31-90%.
Reduce cancer risk #3 – Get vaccinated
It’s ironic that the pseudoscience pushers are solidly anti-vaccine, yet promote pseudoscientific and unsubstantiated “prevent cancer schemes” that are useless.
On the other hand, two vaccines, for hepatitis B and HPV, actually prevent more cancer than drinking 100 kale shakes. The hepatitis B vaccine has caused a 96% decrease in hepatitis B infections, which are related to over 50% of the cases of one type of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma.
The HPV vaccine blocks infection of the human papillomavirus which is linked to several types of terrible cancers. According to the CDC, there are over 43,000 HPV-related cancers are diagnosed in the USA every year. It may be several times that amount worldwide.
Despite the myths, the HPV vaccine is incredibly safe, possibly the safest vaccine of all vaccines (which are all extremely safe). Seriously, one could swallow hundreds or thousands of supplements, and these vaccines will actually do more to prevent cancer than those overpriced supplements will ever do. And yes, the scientific evidence supports that statement.
#4 – Maintain a healthy weight
Keeping one’s BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/sq m can lead to a 20% lower risk of cancer. Scientifically, it is possible that other confounding factors, for example, a high-fat diet or smoking, may lead to the higher risk being associated with obesity, but the evidence seems to show a possible causal relationship.
Besides, obesity leads to a much higher risk of heart disease, joint problems, and dozens of other medical issues, so that maintaining a low BMI to reduce cancer risk is like a bonus.
#5 – Be physically active
Closely related to #4. Being physically active helps maintain a healthy weight, but it may have other benefits with respect to cancer risks.
#6 – Eat a “healthy” diet
No, this does not mean that eating blueberry-kale milkshakes are going to reduce cancer risk for anyone. However, as IARC states, eating a diet filled with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while avoiding high fat and high sugar foods will help with #5.
There’s no solid evidence that a particular diet will reduce the risk of cancer, BUT a healthy diet can lead to weight loss and maintaining the appropriate BMI.
#7 – Avoid drinking alcohol
Alcohol, even moderate amounts, can lead to a significant increase in the risk of certain cancers. In fact, alcohol consumption causes around 3% of cancer deaths in the USA. According to a systematic review, “moderate to heavy consumption of alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, stomach, larynx, colorectum, central nervous system, pancreas, breast, and prostate.”
And not to belabor a point – reduced alcohol consumption could lead to weight loss and a healthy BMI.
#8 – Avoid UV radiation
Ultraviolet (UV) light, mostly from sunlight, can damage surface skin cells leading to some very serious cancers. Although one form of UV light, UVB, is necessary for the production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient, excessive UVB can lead to permanent damage to cells.
Getting vitamin D through supplements or foods is probably healthier than sunlight (yes, I recommended a supplement, because I always make an exception for valid medical reasons like chronic disease or malnutrition).
Nevertheless, avoiding UV light can reduce cancer risk in many individuals.
#9 – Avoid environmental pollutants
Some believe that all “chemicals” are bad, even though there are just a few that are known carcinogens and should be avoided. The current “chemophobia” of many people is borderline ridiculous because even known carcinogenic chemicals can only increase the risk of cancer at certain levels.
Many chemicals are safe at certain concentrations which is a fundamental precept of toxicology, the dose makes the poison. It really is all about the dose.
#10 – Avoid radiation
This risk is really just radon gas, an invisible radioactive gas that is found in many homes in certain geological areas. There are other risks to some people who may be exposed to radiation in certain careers.
Radon can be easily detected, and easily removed from the air, but it does require testing. Many people would not rent or buy a home without having it thoroughly tested for radon gas – I wouldn’t.
#11 – Breastfeed
Women (obviously) who breastfeed their babies for extended periods of time reduce their risk of breast cancer in later life when compared to women who do not breastfeed.
In fact, the reduction in risk of breast cancer is about 4% for every 12 months of breastfeeding (which can be summed up over more than just one baby). This reduction in risk is above and beyond the reduced risk of breast cancers from having a baby.
#12 – Regular cancer screening
There are diagnostic screenings available for a substantial number of cancers. One can get a colonoscopy for difficult-to-detect intestinal cancers. There are simple screenings for cervical and prostate cancer. There is imaging for small tumors on internal organs. There are blood tests for others.
Yes, getting a colonoscopy, if you’re age-appropriate, is not a whole lot of fun. But it’s not dangerous, and it can detect cancer very early before it kills. Once again, screening is much more effective than the mythical miracle kale shake.
Prevent cancer – the TL;DR version
Preventing and treating cancer is not as easy as the “natural food and supplement” people claim. It’s because they oversimplify and understate the biology of cancer. They want people to think “take this pill, don’t worry anymore.”
Or drink that blueberry-kale smoothie, live in a bubble without any human contact, and only breathe unicorn flatulence – that will reduce your cancer risk by 99.473258%. Or not.
I know what you’re thinking – you read this study in mice that if you don’t eat GMO corn and red meat, you’ll never get cancer. Except, the former has zero effect on cancer risk and the latter has only a small effect.
Clearly, It’s not really that easy to prevent cancer, and it is not as easy as downing $20 of supplements that will just be passed in the urine. But if any of you really want to reduce your risk of cancer, then you’ll have to do this.
This first version of this article was originally published in October 2014. This new version of the article (let’s call it version 3.0) has been updated to address some grammar and spelling errors, add links to peer-reviewed journals, fix broken links, improve formatting, and reticulate some bad splines.
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