Lifestyle choices are directly linked to 18% of new cancer cases.
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Ordering a veggie burger instead of a hot dog. These simple everyday choices can’t be underestimated. Every year, more and more research confirms that “lifestyle changes” really do add up, and are the best way to prevent cancer and disease, promote well-being, and achieve a longer life.
To this end, the American Cancer Society recently updated its guidelines for Diet and Physical Activity for 2020 based on a growing pool of research that links exercise, diet and alcohol consumption to 18% of cancer cases and 16% of cancer deaths in the United States.
“COVID-19 brought a new reality to all of us,” says Dr. Sara Sadan, Director for Breast and Women’s Cancers at White Plains Hospital. “It provided us with an opportunity to look at one’s lifestyle and utilizing the time to make long-lasting changes. Discovering the joy of exercise is a good use of our time, and with more families eating at home, it’s also an opportunity to look at how we eat and focus on getting more healthy fresh fruit and vegetables on our plates.”
Make More Exercise Your First Step
To minimize cancer risk, the new ACS guidelines suggest the average person get 150-300 minutes of exercise every week – about 40 minutes a day. Physical activity is the best defense against obesity, which interferes with the body’s immune system and has been specifically linked to breast, ovary, kidney, colon and liver cancers, among others.
“The immune system is fighting cancer cells that are constantly spilling over and helping the body get rid of them,” Dr. Sadan explains. “If we inhibit the ability of the immune system, you are prohibiting the ability of the body to fight mechanisms that happen naturally.”
Multiple studies indicate, beyond cardio exercise as recommended by the ACS, that aiming for 8,000 steps a day is a simple way to improve one’s outlook in terms of survival, according to Dr. Sadan. “My own patients find this approach of counting steps very motivating,” she adds.
Switching Up the Menu
The more you move, the better you will start to feel in general, and this will help you to take the next step – healthier eating choices, notes Dr. Sadan.
For instance, research has found that the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 22% with each additional daily serving of red meat, and by 23% for each daily helping of processed meats (those that have been cured, smoked, salted, fermented etc.), according to the ACS.
“Realistically, there are going to be situations where we are going to eat these foods, but if we just have the mindset that we shouldn’t have them, then hopefully this will limit the amount we do eat,” adds Cheryl Leslie, registered dietitian at WPH’s Center for Cancer Care.
Leslie advises no more than 12 to 18 ounces of cooked red meat every week if you must have it at all, to reduce quantities of heme-iron that leads to the production of cell-damaging chemicals in the colon. Try to avoid grilling (which releases carcinogenic compounds) and cook at lower temperatures, as far away from the flame as possible.
“In the broiler, put the shelf on the lower rung,” Leslie says. “Consider partially cooking at a lower temperature, and then finish off on the grill to get that desired flavor. And marinating meats in vinegar, lemon juice, herbs and spices actually prevents many of these compounds from forming during the cooking process.”
Drinking alcohol raises cancer risk. According to Dr. Sadan, it is best not to drink any alcohol, which contains ethanol. This substance converts to acetyl alcohol (a carcinogen) and is linked to cancer of the GI tract, mouth, pharynx, and esophagus -- and is a risk for breast cancer.
“It’s important to realize that alcohol use in our society often starts younger than it should, which severely ups the risk of developing cancer later in life,” says Dr. Sadan. “Women should be encouraged to teach their daughters that alcohol consumption at a young age can lead to breast cancer at a young age.”
Dr. Sadan says if you do drink, limit to no more than 1 to 2 drinks per week. Try skipping a round and rotating a glass of water in as a good strategy that will keep you hydrated, advises Cheryl Leslie. Order a smaller size drink, or split one with a friend. You can even have the margarita mix without the alcohol – you might be surprised how much you like it.