Experts offer six tips for lowering cancer risk through lifestyle choices

December 18, 2020
sunrise over the ocean at Isle of Palms beach
Heading out for a walk or run on one of Charleston’s local beaches, such as Isle of Palms Beach (pictured above), is a good way to stay active and reduce stress — both of which can help lower your risk of developing cancer. Photo by Dawn Brazell

More than 40% of cancer cases and cancer deaths in the United States are linked to modifiable risk factors, meaning they could be prevented, according to the American Cancer Society. That means more than a third of what causes cancer is more within our control than some might have realized.

Many factors can play a role in an individual’s personal risk for cancer, including family history, certain hormones and age, but increasing evidence shows that lifestyle choices can have a profound impact on cancer risk and outcomes. Certain diets, activity level, sun exposure, body weight and alcohol use have all been identified as factors that can increase the risk of developing certain cancers.

As you begin to map out your New Year’s resolutions, experts in MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s Cancer Control Program urge you to consider adopting healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your risk for cancer and help you become the healthiest version of yourself in 2021 and beyond.

Tips for reducing cancer risk through a healthy lifestyle

1. Lower your stress level:

Stress has long been linked to health conditions such as heart disease and high blood pressure, but new evidence published this month in Science Translational Medicine reveals that elevated stress hormone levels could cause dormant tumor cells to reawaken.

Besim Ogretmen, Ph.D., who leads Hollings’ Developmental Cancer Therapeutics Research Program, said, “Over many decades, we knew that stress levels negatively affect tumor growth and response to therapy in cancer patients without much mechanistic insight. This new study demonstrates that stress-related hormones play a key role in activating dormant cancer cells to induce tumors, which is also associated with increased cancer recurrence in patients. Overall, these studies suggest that relieving stress or trying to reduce a stressful lifestyle might be beneficial for cancer patients.”

Increased stress can also lead to unhealthy coping habits, including smoking, overeating and excessive alcohol consumption — all of which can also increase cancer risk.

2. Reduce the accumulation of AGEs:

Bradley Krisanits demonstrates using the AGE reader in the lab 
Bradley Krisanits, a Ph.D. student in Turner’s lab, demonstrates using an AGE reader — a device that can measure AGE levels in the skin in 12 seconds. Photo by Dawn Brazell

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are proteins and lipids (fats) that go through a chemical alteration when they are exposed to sugars. This process occurs naturally in the body, but processed foods and foods cooked at high temperatures are extremely high in AGEs, which can lead to a dangerous overabundance. High levels of AGEs have been linked to cancer risk, and AGEs are involved in nearly every chronic disease.

“AGEs build up in a cumulative way. Fats, sugars, everything that is bad for you leads to the accumulation of AGEs,” said Hollings researcher David Turner, Ph.D., who recently led a study linking AGEs to breast cancer risk. “Just making small changes in your diet can have a big effect.”

While AGE accumulation is bad for people of all ages, there are critical windows of time, such as puberty, when eating a healthier diet is more important than usual. Research by Turner demonstrated that mice fed high-AGE diets during puberty later showed abnormal growths in mammary development that could be a precursor to cancer.

In addition to choosing healthier foods, you can lower your AGE levels by cooking foods at lower temperatures for longer, using ceramic cooking surfaces instead of metal, skipping the browning step when preparing dishes and using a food thermometer to make sure you aren’t overcooking meats.

3. Avoid smoking and alcohol use:

Quitting smoking lowers the risk of developing 12 types of cancers and can also improve survival rates for patients who quit smoking after a cancer diagnosis. Smoking decreases the effectiveness of cancer treatments and puts patients at increased risk of complications from surgery, the development of a second primary tumor and increased side effects from treatment. However, kicking the habit is often a challenge, and the stress and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t helping.

“During these trying times, quitting smoking can be particularly difficult, but it is no less important. Just because we are keeping socially distant doesn’t mean that smokers are all alone in their quit efforts,” said Matthew Carpenter, Ph.D., co-leader of Hollings’ Cancer Control Research Program. “The most important thing is to get help. If you slip, don’t give up.”

A number of FDA-approved medications can double the chances of quitting, and disrupting your daily routine by substituting another activity for your favorite cues and contexts of smoking can also help.

In addition to smoking, some research has shown that any amount of alcohol use can increase the risk of certain cancer types. When alcohol and smoking are combined, the risk is higher than when using either substance on its own.

4. Maintain a healthy weight, diet and activity level:

Aside from tobacco use, the most important cancer risk factors that Americans can control are weight, diet and physical activity. Excess body weight is estimated to be responsible for 11% of cancers in women and 5% of cancers in men. Some studies have demonstrated that losing weight may actually reverse this effect and lower cancer risk, though more research is needed.

Staying active and eating a balanced diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, fiber and dietary calcium may greatly reduce the lifetime risk of developing and dying from cancer. Turner’s lab has also discovered preliminary evidence suggesting that exercise reduces the amount of AGEs in circulation, and in prostate cancer models, physical activity counteracted cancer progression in mice that were fed a high-AGE diet.

Any kind of aerobic exercise, including walking, can help lower risk. Evidence also suggests that limiting the amount of time spent sitting — regardless of activity level — can reduce the risk of both obesity and some types of cancers.

To reduce sitting time, try placing an exercise bike in front of the TV to stay active without missing your favorite shows, take quick walking breaks during work and park further away from the store when you run errands to get in some extra steps.

5. Stay up to date with regular preventive care:

Regular self-exams and screenings are important in the quest to catch cancers early, which can greatly improve outcomes and survival when a cancer has developed. Regular check-ins with your primary care physician are still important despite the ongoing pandemic.

“My colleagues and I at MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center and around the world are concerned that the significant gains we have made over the past 20 years in terms of long-term cancer survival easily could be reversed due to difficulties in accessing non-COVID-related health care,” Hollings director Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., recently wrote in a commentary in the Post and Courier. “The coronavirus pandemic will end one day, but our fight against cancer will continue.”

Keeping up with doctor’s visits is also important for ensuring that you receive other evidence-based preventive care, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which can prevent six types of cancers.

6. Be aware of health disparities and barriers to care:

Health disparities are defined as the inequalities that occur in the provision of health care and access to health care across different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Many factors contribute to these disparities in the U.S., including access to transportation, healthy food, recreational facilities for physical activity and specialty care — all of which can affect cancer risk and outcomes.

South Carolina has a high percentage of rural and medically underserved areas within the state, and the state’s poverty level and percentage of different ethnic and racial minority groups — such as Black Americans — is higher than the country’s average. Because of this, Hollings researchers are dedicated to understanding these disparities more fully to create solutions.

Learn more about the state’s known health disparities and the programs offered by Hollings — such as its Mobile Health Unit — to address these disparities and to get the care you need.