Answers to 3 common questions about cancer prevention

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By Mayo Clinic staff

You don't have to overhaul your life to reduce your cancer risk. Understanding your personal risk and making lifestyle changes to improve your overall health can help.

To get you started, here are answers to three common questions about cancer prevention:

1. How do you know if you're at risk for cancer?

Talk to your health care provider. Your health care provider can help you understand your personal risk factors and evaluate your lifestyle to determine if you should make changes to lower your cancer risk.

"I assess cancer risk factors in three areas: personal medical history, family health history, and what you're exposed to in the environment," says Paul Limburg, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist and cancer researcher at Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

Your personal medical history includes information about underlying conditions, as well as illnesses, surgeries and treatments you have had in the past.

"As a gastroenterologist, I think about chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease — something that affects the GI (gastrointestinal) tract and can sometimes lead to precancerous and cancerous conditions," says Dr. Limburg.

Work with your health care provider to monitor changes in any chronic conditions that increase your risk of developing cancer. This is key to catching cancer early when it is generally easier to treat.

Family health history includes the diseases and conditions that run in your family.

"There are families in which cancer can be seen across generations," says Dr. Limburg. "If this is you, have a discussion with your doctor to learn about your family's genetic predisposition to cancer and help determine a cancer prevention strategy that’s appropriate for you."

In addition to personal and family medical history, external factors you are exposed to through the environment and everyday life can increase your risk of cancer, including:

  • UV rays from the sun or tanning beds.
  • Viruses such as HIV or HPV, which can weaken the immune system and allow cancer to develop.
  • Carcinogens, such as smoke, alcohol, asbestos and some chemicals found in processed meat.

Age and habits, including exercise and eating habits, are also risk factors for developing cancer.

Your health care provider can review what elements in your life may increase your cancer risk and recommend lifestyle changes to lower this risk. Your health care provider also can consider how your risk factors change as you age or if you develop other conditions.

2. Can adopting a healthier lifestyle help lower your cancer risk?

You can adopt a number of healthy lifestyle habits to lower your cancer risk:

Maintain a balanced diet and healthy weight.

There is no conclusive evidence that says diet can lower cancer risk, but a minimally processed, whole-food diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity, which is linked to cancer risk.

"Eating too many refined or processed foods is not good for cancer risk or your overall health, especially if it's your daily pattern," says Dr. Limburg. "Stick to natural products and have a healthy balance of plants and vegetables."

Limit your consumption of red meat.

Moderating your consumption of red meat and avoiding processed meat also can reduce your exposure to carcinogens.

"If you like to eat meat, make sure that the cooking preparation is safe, as heavily charred meat has been linked to some types of cancer," says Dr. Limburg.

Protect yourself from the sun.

Exposure to UV rays, whether from the sun or artificial light, can increase your risk for skin cancer. Wear protective clothing and a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 30, year-round. Also, avoid the midday sun.

Don't smoke.

Smoking tobacco is one of the most common risk factors for numerous types of cancer, including cancers of the lung, mouth, esophagus, throat, stomach, pancreas and more. Smokeless tobacco and vaping also are associated with serious health risks. If you smoke, talk to your health care provider and make a plan to quit.

Avoid drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a carcinogen. It is associated with an increased risk of breast and colorectal cancers, as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach and liver. Weigh the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol and work with your health care provider to correctly define alcohol portions that are safe for you.

3. Can genetic testing help you learn more about your cancer risk?

Genetic testing can reveal mutations in your genes that may cause cancer, but there are limitations. For example, a positive result from genetic testing doesn't always mean you will develop a specific disease. On the other hand, in some situations, a negative result doesn't guarantee that you won't have a certain disease.

If you're thinking about genetic testing for cancer risk, talk to your health care provider, a medical geneticist or a genetic counselor about what you will do with the results.

"No test is perfect, but gene tests are very good, and technology has come a long way," says Dr. Limburg. "Don't rely only on a test result, however. Make sure you put the information into context. Have a detailed discussion with someone whose medical advice you trust, and then decide if genetic testing is the right approach," says Dr. Limburg.

If there is a cause for concern in your genetic test findings, your health care provider can help you create a plan for regular screening or help you find other ways to reduce cancer risk.

It is impossible to live a life without cancer risk, but it is possible to sensibly manage the cancer risk factors within your control. Talking openly with your health care provider will help you stay ahead of your risk factors and adjust your lifestyle as needed.

"There's always something we can do," says Dr. Limburg. Just remember that long-term change takes time. "Make a change that is a small step forward, and that you can sustain, so when you take the next step forward, you're starting from a better place."

Learn more

Watch Dr. Paul Limburg discuss cancer prevention and research at Mayo Clinic in this "Mayo Clinic Q&A" podcast video:

Also read this article: "Cancer prevention: 7 tips to reduce your risk."

Dr. Limburg serves as chief medical officer for screening at Exact Sciences through a contracted services agreement with Mayo Clinic. Dr. Limburg and Mayo Clinic have contractual rights to receive royalties through this agreement.