Simple lifestyle changes that may help prevent cancer

Dartmouth Cancer Center experts share strategies to prevent cancer and live a healthy lifestyle.

About 50 percent of cancers diagnosed per year—a million people a year—we can actually prevent

Simon Khagi, MD, FACP

There are many different causes of cancer, from radiation and carcinogen exposure (including smoking) to viral infections and genetic factors. But research shows that some cancers may be prevented with lifestyle choices and screenings.

Simon Khagi, MD, FACP, medical director, Dartmouth Cancer Center Southern Region, and Elise B. Cushman, MS, RD, LD, CSO, Oncology Nutrition, Dartmouth Cancer Center, recently shared their cancer prevention expertise in “Preventing Cancer and Living a Healthy Lifestyle,” a Thriving Thursdays virtual program presented by Dartmouth Cancer Center and the American Cancer Society.

In 2019, there were 2 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States. “About 50 percent of these cancers being diagnosed per year—a million people a year—we can actually prevent,” Khagi said. “The best offense is a good defense, and that’s when we talk about prevention and screening.”

He offered the following action items to help prevent cancer:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Lose weight (achieve a BMI of less than 30).
  • Exercise at least 3 ½ hours per week – try walking, biking, swimming or light weight lifting.
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains—and less meat.
  • Have your home tested for radon and install a radon mitigation system, if needed. 
  • Get cancer screenings: skin exams, Pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, prostate exams, and low-dose CT scans for current or former smokers. Work with your provider to find out how often you should be screened based on your personal risk of developing certain cancers.

Small steps can make a big impact

Cushman explained that cultures with mainly plant-based diets—featuring more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and less processed foods—have lower cancer rates. The standard American diet (SAD) is mainly meat with some vegetables.

“The emerging evidence suggests healthy versus unhealthy dietary patterns are associated with a reduced risk of cancer, especially for colon and breast,” Cushman said. “The American Cancer Society and the American Institute of Cancer Research guidelines for prevention also line up with the guidelines for prevention and management of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.”

Cushman shared that 9 out of 10 Americans don’t eat the recommended 5 fruits and vegetables daily, but small steps can help achieve a healthier lifestyle. These include:

  • Add more fruits and vegetables to your plate, whether they’re fresh, frozen or canned. Try to make your plate a rainbow of colors. 
  • Create challenges for yourself. For example, try to have a fruit and vegetable for breakfast. 
  • Add more fiber to your diet with whole grains. 
  • Limit red meat to 18 ounces per week.
  • Marinate meat before grilling it to reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds created by the flame interacting with the protein.
  • Limit alcohol intake: 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men (the American Cancer Society now recommends not drinking alcohol at all).
  • Drink more milk: it’s a balanced food.
  • Keep added sugars to 6 teaspoons daily for women and 9 for men.

“Evidence suggests that the more closely you follow these recommendations, the lower your risk of cancer is overall,” said Cushman. “But each step you can take helps—your risk is reduced even if you don't follow the recommendations perfectly.”

To view the entire program, visit Dartmouth Health’s YouTube channel.