Avoiding cancer can seem like an impossible task. After all, genetics, uncontrollable environmental factors, and of course every bite of food you take all seem to be at play. The sheer number of factors can be overwhelming.
But the good news is that many of these factors actually are within our control. And some of them are quite easy to manage. Let me share five easy ways you can reduce your cancer risk today.
Cancer Avoidance Tip #1
You’ve probably heard the saying “early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise.” I can’t promise wealth or wisdom, but following this advice, which may date back to the 1400s, can indeed help keep you healthy.
Getting the right amount of sleep is important to cancer prevention. But new research is indicating that when you get that sleep matters too. In fact, a very large study indicates that sleeping in may be linked to breast cancer.
For this study, researchers examined data from 180,215 who participated in the UK Biobank project as well as 228,951 who enrolled in a study the international Breast Cancer Associate Consortium (BCAC) conducted. The researchers were able to evaluate genetic factors as well as sleep patterns.
In particular, the researchers looked at whether the women preferred to get up early (“larks”) or stay up late (“owls”), how long they slept, and whether they suffered from insomnia. When they examined the BCAC data, they found that being a lark significantly reduced breast cancer risk – to the tune of 40%! A similar analysis of the UK Biobank data linked a preference for mornings to a 48% reduction in breast cancer risk.
You likely know that you should get at least seven hours of sleep a night. But more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, the researchers found that once the women hit eight hours, every additional hour of sleep increased breast cancer risk by 20%. These findings support other research linking shift work and exposure to light at night with increased cancer risk.
The researchers are planning to continue investigating how our circadian rhythms affect cancer risk. It seems that disrupting the body’s natural rhythms can make the body function less optimally, ultimately allowing cancer cells to thrive.
For now, try to go to bed and wake up a little earlier. If you’re already an early bird, you don’t need to keep pushing it. But if you tend to stay up late and sleep in, begin trying to back up bedtime. Try setting an alarm to tell you when to go to bed. You may find that you don’t need one to wake up!
Cancer Avoidance Tip #2
Some people have trouble getting to bed on time because they like to eat late dinners. But research indicates that when you eat can also significantly affect your cancer risk.
Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health looked at data from 621 people with prostate cancer and 1,205 people with breast cancer. They compared them to 2,193 healthy controls. Research has closely linked both breast and prostate cancer to circadian rhythms, so the researchers wanted to evaluate whether food timing affected cancer risk at all.
The researchers interviewed the participants about their eating habits, their sleep habits, whether they preferred mornings or evenings, and how closely they followed cancer-prevention suggestions.
The researchers found that eating dinner before 9:00 p.m. or waiting at least two hours between dinner and bed reduced prostate and breast cancer risk by about 20% compared to eating after 10:00 p.m. or going right to bed after eating.
Of course, eating late can push your bedtime back, which makes you more likely to sleep in. And some people find that eating too close to bedtime makes it harder to sleep. Eating early in the evening will allow you to take a break after your meal and still get to bed at a decent hour.
Cancer Avoidance Tip #3
But what should you eat for dinner? If you want to get the cancer-preventing benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, you should choose fish a few times a week. This is especially important if you usually rely on plant-based sources of omega-3s.
Plants, such as flaxseed, do contain the fatty acid a-linolenic acid (ALA). But to get eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), you’ll want to eat food from the ocean. Fish, algae, and phytoplankton can all be good sources. ALA, EPA, and DHA all provide anti-cancer benefits. But to get the most bang for your buck, research indicates you’ll want to choose EPA and DHA.
Researchers determined this by exposing mice with breast cancer to either ALA or EPA and DHA. The breast cancer involved in the study is HER-2. It’s very aggressive. But the omega-3s were aggressive as well. Overall, exposure to the fatty acids reduced tumor sizes by 60% to 70%. And they cut the number of tumors by 30%.
These are great results. It seems that omega-3s activate immune system genes and block genetic pathways that allow tumors to grow. But the researchers had to use a lot more ALA than EPA and DHA to get the same outcomes.
There’s nothing wrong with consuming ALA. And it can certainly be useful. But you don’t want to rely on ALA for all your anti-cancer efforts. The researchers recommend eating fish two to three times a week to get the levels of DHA and EPA they used in their study.
You can also take an omega-3 supplement if you prefer not to eat fish that often. I think your best bet is to look for one that contains ALA, DHA, and EPA. The fish oils might be the heavy hitters. But ALA offers plenty of benefit in its own right too. I think it’s wise to have a variety of cancer-fighters in your arsenal.
Cancer Avoidance Tip #4
Speaking of variety, I’m sure you know that eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can help you fight cancer too. When it comes to fresh produce, you can find evidence that just about anything you choose will help you fight cancer – if you pick the right version.
The best, of course, is organics. Whether or not you really need to choose organic products has been surprisingly controversial for years. I’ve always been firmly in the camp of the fewer pesticides you expose yourself to, the better.
I know organic foods are typically more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts. But the difference is negligible compared to the cost of treating cancer or a chronic disease. Now new research is backing up what I’ve been saying all along.
French researchers followed 68,946 participants, 78% of whom were women, for five years. They assessed the types of foods they ate and their cancer incidence. In particular, the researchers looked at the frequency of consumption of 16 types of organic foods. The participants also completed food diaries.
The researchers found that those who ate organic foods the most often had 25% fewer cancers than those who never chose organic options. In particular, eating organic fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat significantly lowered rates of lymphoma and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Even the researchers were surprised by how protective organics seem to be. They were expecting to find a much more subtle reduction in risk.
So now you know to eat an early dinner of fish and organic fruits and vegetables and then go to bed before it gets too late. And there’s one final box you can check to decrease your risk even further. This one might be the easiest of all because you don’t have to do anything to execute this anti-cancer strategy.
Cancer Avoidance Tip #5
All you have to do is skip alcohol at dinner. The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) has determined that following a healthier diet could eliminate about 35% of breast cancers and 45% of colorectal cancers. The WCRF/AICR has developed some guidelines for an anti-cancer lifestyle. These suggestions are pretty basic and include eating a healthy diet and exercising.
Researchers wanted to know how well those guidelines worked. They gathered data from 41,543 French participants age 40 and up. None of the participants had received a cancer diagnosis before the start of the study. Over the course of the study, which ran from May 2009 through the end of December 2017, 1,489 cases of cancer developed. Of these, 488 were breast cancer, 222 were prostate cancer, and 118 were colorectal cancer.
The researchers asked the participants to submit food diaries every six months. They evaluated the participants’ choices to see how well they adhered to four different dietary patterns. The researchers found that for every point the participants scored closer to an ideal WCRF/AICR diet, their cancer risk went down by 12%. Their breast cancer risk dropped even further, by 14%. Adherence to this diet seemed to be the best predictor of reduced cancer risk.
The researchers tried to tease apart what made this diet so successful. Overall, they concluded that the synergistic effects of all the healthy foods we know and love were key. But if they had to name a most valuable player, it would actually be one that sat on the bench: the WCRF/AICR diet recommended limiting alcohol consumption.
Previous research has linked alcohol to oropharyngeal, esophagus, liver, colorectal, and post-menopausal breast cancers. So it’s not surprising that leaving it out helped this diet reduce cancer risk.
I know the messages about alcohol can be mixed. Red wine does have some antioxidants. And beer can provide nutrients as well. An occasional drink isn’t the end of the world. But if you’re serious about avoiding cancer, especially breast cancer, you’re likely best off avoiding it. And if you don’t like to drink, you definitely don’t need to start because you think it’s good for you.
For many people, these lifestyle changes will be small. But they can add up and make a big difference. It’s ok to stay up late and sleep in every once in a while. But don’t make it your everyday routine. And try to fill your plate with food like fish and organic vegetables more often. Eating an early, light, healthy dinner without alcohol should help you wake up feeling refreshed at a reasonable hour. And making these changes should help you sleep at night knowing that you don’t need to fret about cancer. These little adjustments can go a long way toward reducing your risk.