Cancer is the number-one cause of death across the world. According to the World Health Organization, close to 10 million people died of some form in 2020. The types that are most prevalent vary between regions—and while genetics can play a role in some cases, local and individual variables are often bigger factors.
We can’t prevent cancer from occurring; in most cases, no one can predict which perfect storm will result in someone developing a certain malignancy. What we can do, however, is limit the variables that are likely to throw the odds in cancer’s favor—reducing our personal odds by up to 50%. Here are five concerns that are worth addressing regardless of any other, additional risk factors.
Consider Invisible Threats
Sometimes, it’s the dangers we don’t notice that cause the most damage. Colorless, odorless threats like radon, a radioactive gas that naturally occurs all across the earth’s crust, can accumulate anywhere. The gas is the result of uranium breakdown, making it most prevalent in areas with heavy amounts of volcanic rock and soil, but it can also make its way into water sources and manufactured products. Radon is the second leading contributor to lung cancer; people regularly exposed to radon who also smoke significantly increase their risks.
Radon can build up in homes, and it also readily attaches itself to household dust, so the first line of defense is to keep good indoor ventilation and make sure all surfaces are free of standing dust. People who are concerned about the radon levels in their home should contact local authorities about testing options.
Moderate Sunlight Exposure
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a double-edged sword: Its presence is necessary for life as we know it to exist, but exposure also contributes to skin damage that can lead to cancer. Sunlight produces multiple forms of UV radiation, but only UVA and UVB make it through the planet’s many layers of atmosphere.
Excessive UVA exposure speeds up the appearance of ageing, whereas UVB causes the cellular damage linked to cancer. We expose ourselves to both whenever we’re in direct sunlight, or if we subject our skin to tanning beds. The most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which usually spread slowly and are relatively easy to cure. Melanoma is less common but far more aggressive and often difficult to treat; once it metastasizes, it usually becomes deadly.
Keep UV exposure to a minimum by limiting direct sunlight, especially during the peak intensity hours, which occur through the late morning into early afternoon. Steer clear of tanning beds, which are no safer than sunlight. People who must be outdoors, in the sunlight, should wear protective clothing; some people may need to consider applying sunscreen. Consider adding protective films to windows that let in large amounts of light to further reduce exposure. Remember also to wear sunglasses that include UV protection to safeguard against cataracts and macular degeneration.
Guard Your Personal Space
Several viruses significantly increase a person’s chances of developing cancer. For example, infection with Epstein-Barr, the virus responsible for mononucleosis (“kissing disease”), can lead to nasopharyngeal cancer, stomach cancer, and certain lymphomas later in life. Hepatitis strains B and C can increase risks for liver cancer. Human papillomavirus infections significantly raise risks for cervical cancer, also increasing the chances of developing lesions in other genital regions as well as the mouth and throat.
Of course, we can’t avoid other people; interacting is part of being human. We can avoid close contact with those who look ill—and those of us who are dating can be picky about sexual partners. The company we choose could be far more impactful down the line than we might anticipate right now.
Most medical researchers agree correlations exist between obesity and cancer risks. Studies have shown overweight people can reduce their chances of developing multiple types of cancer simply by losing weight. Most notably, researchers have looked at the effects of weight on pancreatic cancer, finding obese individuals faced risks up to 60% higher than average-weight counterparts. Obesity also worsens a person’s prognosis if they do develop cancer.
The findings suggest insulin resistance may play a role, as it seems people suffering from metabolic syndrome have higher overall cancer risks. However, other factors, such as activity levels, inflammation, blood lipid levels and microbiome changes may also be contributing factors in overweight individuals. For example, increased exercise, which reduces inflammation and blood lipid levels, has shown to diminish a person’s chances of developing liver cancer by up to 54%.
Be Mindful of Diet
A healthy diet may be just as vital as keeping a healthy body weight. Researchers recommend people include ample amounts of dietary fiber, including eating plenty of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, it’s important to minimize consumption of processed meals, which includes fast food and packaged/frozen meals, as well as sugary drinks and snacks.
One reason diet may be so important could be its influence on the microbiome. The Mediterranean diet and similar eating patterns appear to improve inflammation levels and overall health by improving the ratio of “healthy” to “unhealthy” microbes in the gut. Maintaining a balanced gut ratio could make the ultimate difference when it comes to protecting against numerous forms of cancer.
This one might seem like a no-brainer (even among those of us who wish to remain in denial—and as an ex-smoker, I get it), but it’s still worth mentioning one more time: Tobacco is a major carcinogen. A 2018 WHO study found tobacco to be directly responsible for 20% of worldwide cancer deaths. Smokeless tobacco and vaping are no safer than cigarette smoke.
Quitting is hard, and tobacco can be extremely gratifying for users, but it’s simply a trap—a well-disguised, enticing, terribly addictive trap. The longer we fall for it, the more damage we allow it to do. Quitting tobacco may very well be the most difficult task most users ever set out to accomplish, but the health benefits are so incredibly worth it.
People who want to try may find more success if they plan ahead, considering how they might cope when cravings or grumpiness hit. Seeking support from friends, family or even support groups may also help, as can understanding that the discomfort of withdrawal is temporary. Remember that it’s normal to feel restless, to have difficulty sleeping, and to feel moody, anxious or depressed—but it will all eventually pass. In the meantime, finding ways to stay busy and among smoke-free people can reduce the emotional burden.
Cut Alcohol Intake
A new study conducted by Oxford Population Health offers overwhelming evidence that alcohol is a major carcinogen. It estimates that over 400,000 people develop cancer each year as a direct result of consuming alcohol. Researchers believe they can connect alcohol directly to colon, breast, liver, neck, head and esophageal cancers, although smoking and diet likely complicate the results.
DNA-based research in China found that men who are genetically predisposed to infrequent drinking are up to 25% less likely to develop cancer, in general. Most specifically, they’re less apt to develop cancers of the esophagus, head and neck. People with low tolerability to alcohol, but drink regularly despite it, appear to have the highest increases in these cancer risks.
Cancer strikes in so many different ways, which means all any of us can do is cover as many bases as possible. Ultimately, we each must look at the factors that are within our power to control and take charge wherever we can. Some people might still fall ill, but a few of us might just dodge the bullet.