While it isn’t always possible to prevent cancer from occurring, here are some of the things you can do to improve your odds of avoiding cancer:
Quit smoking or otherwise using tobacco.
It’s estimated that smoking is responsible for 30% of all cancer deaths in Canada and is related to more than 85% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco use is also implicated in cancers of the nasal cavity, mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, liver, kidney, pancreas, cervix, colon and rectum; acute myelogenous leukemia; and some types of ovarian tumours.
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, get help and quit now.
Eat a healthful diet
Proper nutrition is essential to good health overall and also to reducing your risk of certain types of cancer. For example, cancers such as colon and prostate are associated with diets high in fat. Eating well – lots of vegetables, fruits, and fiber- and little fat and sugar – will contribute to your overall health and well-being, and will reduce your risk of cancer.
Maintain a healthy body weight
Your risk of developing cancer is higher if you are overweight. It’s believed that about one-third of all cancers can be prevented by eating well, staying active, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Get some exercise
Regular physical activity helps protect the body against cancer. It’s also one of the best ways to maintain a healthy body weight, which is also important in cancer prevention.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation
Heavy or regular alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing cancers of the oral cavity (excluding the lips), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum. The risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol a person drinks.
Protect your skin from the sun
The sunlight in Canada is strong enough to cause skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. Sun exposure is particularly hazardous to people with light-colored skin and those who had several blistering sunburns as a child. If you spend time in the sun, be sure to take precautions such as wearing a broad-brimmed hat and long-sleeved clothing and using sunscreen. Make sure to talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in your skin.
Skip the tanning salon
Indoor tanning equipment gives off ultraviolet radiation (UVR) at levels up to 5 times stronger than the midday summer sun. Getting a tan from a tanning bed doesn’t protect you from the sun – it does more harm than the sun.
Studies have shown that people who used indoor tanning equipment are at much greater risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma and somewhat great risk for basal cell carcinoma. The increased risk is especially pronounced for people who begin indoor tanning before the age of 25. (1)
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and the most common type of cancer for young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Research has also shown that the risk of melanoma is much higher in people who use indoor tanning equipment. (2)
It is best to avoid indoor tanning altogether.
Cancer Screening Guidelines
See your doctor and talk about screening
Tests are available that can detect some types of cancer in its early stages, when it can be more effectively treated. Talk to your doctor about the types of screening available and the guidelines in your province. Cancers for which screening is available include:
The Canadian Cancer Society’s recommendations for breast cancer are different depending on your age. In a nutshell:
- If you are 40 to 49: Talk to your doctor about your risk of breast cancer, along with the benefits and risks of mammography.
- If you are 50 to 69: Have a mammogram every 2 years.
- If you are 70 or older: Talk to your doctor about how often you should have a mammogram.
The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that men and women age 50 and over have a stool test (guaiac-based fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test) at least every 2 years. There is convincing evidence that stool tests with appropriate follow-up can significantly reduce deaths from colorectal cancer.
Follow-up for a positive test should include a colonoscopy or double contrast barium enema (an x-ray of the large intestine) or flexible sigmoidoscopy.
If you’ve ever been sexually active, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends you start having regular Pap tests by the time you’re 21. You’ll need a Pap test every 1 to 3 years, depending on your previous test results.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 different types of viruses, more than 40 of which are transmitted through sexual intercourse, genital skin-to-skin contact and oral sex. Some of these types of HPV (“high risk” types) are linked to cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, as well as the oral cavity and throat.
If you are sexually active, you can reduce your risk of HPV infection by:
- having as few sexual partners as possible
- being in a monogamous relationship with someone who hasn’t had a lot of sexual partners
- using condoms
There are also two vaccines that protect against HPV infection available in Canada: Cervarix and Gardasil. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that girls and women between the ages of 9 and 45, and boys between the ages of 9 and 26 be vaccinated against HPV to help reduce their risk of HPV-related cancers. For girls and women, HPV vaccination should be used along with, not instead of, cervical cancer screening.
Talk to your doctor about which vaccine is right for you and when you should have it.
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(1) “Indoor tanning and non-melanoma skin cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis.” Eleni Linos et al., British Medical Journal, 2 October 2012.
(2) “The Association of Use of Sunbeds with Cutaneous Malignant Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers: A Systematic Review.” International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group on artificial ultraviolet (UV) light and skin cancer. Int J Cancer. 1 March 2007.