There’s really no way to soften this: About 1,685,210 cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society, and almost 600,000 Americans will die from these dread diseases. But there are many things you can do to lower your chances of becoming a statistic. We asked top oncologists and other cancer specialists for advice.
Pop a baby aspirin.
“I take 81 mg daily. Research shows it can significantly reduce the risk of many different types of cancer, including an almost 50% reduction in colon cancer. It’s thought to lower risk by reducing inflammation that can encourage growth of cancer cells. The only caveat is it does increase risk of GI bleeding, so people who are heavy alcohol drinkers, have a history of ulcers, or take anticoagulant drugs aren’t good candidates.”
–Mohamed Abazeed, MD, PhD, radiation oncologist at Cleveland Clinic
Consider hormonal birth control.
“Oral contraceptives reduce the risk of both ovarian and endometrial cancer by about 50% after 5 years of use, and those effects persist over time. If you’re looking for a more long-term form of birth control, then I recommend the Mirena IUD. It contains progesterone, which appears to help prevent any precancerous changes of the uterine lining and thus also helps lower the risk of endometrial cancer.”
–Josh Kesterson, MD, chief of the division of gynecologic oncology at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center
Take a pottery class.
“It serves two purposes: It allows you to be creative, and it gives you a social outlet. One study in female breast cancer patients found that those who were the most creative had the most favorable prognoses. Other research shows that the more social support cancer patients have, the greater their chances of survival. Personally, I think the key to both is that they relieve stress, which causes cellular changes that increase cancer risk. My advice is to take time every day for something that allows you to express your creativity: journaling, cooking, gardening, decorating. I paint several times a week, and I try to do it outdoors so I can spend some time in nature, which I also find stress-relieving.”
–Diljeet K. Singh, MD, DrPH, a gynecologic oncologist in McLean, VA
Scale back on meat.
“I have fish occasionally, but I’ve gone almost completely vegetarian, and I try to avoid dairy. Some research suggests that animal protein increases the risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Breakfast is usually a banana smoothie, lunch is some kind of soup such as split pea and barley combined with a salad, and dinner is something with lentils or a bean burrito. You can get plenty of protein from plant sources such as beans, nuts, and certain grains such as quinoa. If that’s hard for you to do, then make sure you avoid processed meats—which seem to pose the greatest risk—and try to limit yourself to one serving of animal protein daily.”
–Rekha Chaudhary, MD, oncologist at the University of Cincinnati
Don’t get a Pap smear annually.
“Groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Colposcopy Providers no longer recommend annual Pap smears; now it’s just every 3 years until age 65, and you can even stretch it to 5 years if you combine it with HPV testing and both are negative. Why? Because most of the time, more testing doesn’t find anything. It can pick up early precancerous changes in cells, but they often revert back to normal on their own. And once a doctor finds them, they may want to treat them, which can potentially impact your future fertility, increase risk of infection, cause pain, and cause you unnecessary anxiety.”
–BJ Rimel, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in LA
Get enough sleep.
“Some research now that suggests not enough shut-eye increases the risk of certain cancers such as breast cancer; one theory is that the suppression of melatonin at night—when you’re up in bright light instead of asleep in your bed—triggers growth of cancerous cells. I get at least 7 hours a night.” (Drink this natural source of melatonin to get more sleep.)
–Marleen Meyers, MD, assistant professor of medicine and cancer specialist at the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center
Drink the Kool-Aid.
“A colonoscopy is the gold standard for detecting colon cancer, but many patients shy away from it because the prep is so time consuming and unpalatable. When I have to drink the liquid provided to speed things up down there, I mix it with lemon-lime Kool-Aid. It makes it taste so much better (don’t use anything that’s a stronger color, since it can stain your colon). If my patients really are adamant that they don’t want a colonoscopy, I recommend Cologuard, which is a new noninvasive, at-home colon cancer screening test that was approved by the FDA in 2014. It detects over 90% of colorectal cancers, compared with only about 75% that are detected by the fecal immunochemical test [FIT], a commonly used noninvasive screening test that detects blood in the stool. The only downside is if you have a false positive, you’ll have to undergo a colonoscopy regardless.”
–Axel Grothey, MD, oncologist at the Mayo Clinic
Focus on cardio.
“Activities that result in sustained increases in heart rate—such as walking, jogging, swimming, elliptical, cycling, etc.—tend to burn the most calories and keep weight down. This may result in lower insulin levels and other factors that some data suggest have a protective effect against cancer. Personally, I do a combination of swimming, jogging, and walking and shoot hoops for 2.5 hours weekly at a moderate pace.”
–James Hamrick, MD, MPH, chief of oncology at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta
Get enough vitamin D.
“Low levels are associated with the development of many cancers, so I make sure mine are adequate. The best way to get a healthy daily dose of vitamin D is to do something active outside every day. Your doctor can check for a vitamin D deficiency via a simple blood test—if your levels are still low, you can talk to her about taking a supplement.”
–Allyson Ocean, MD, oncologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center
Dial down your drinking.
“Women are often surprised to learn that they can lower their breast cancer risk by reducing alcohol intake to an average of less than a drink a day. What they don’t need to worry about? Underwire bras, trauma to the breast, or having large breasts. None of these increases the risk of developing breast cancer.”
–Katherine Crew, MD, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center