As reported by USA TODAY, September 11, 2005.

Proven Steps to a Longer Life

By Liz Szabo

Millions of Americans take steps to reduce their risk of heart disease, such as taking cholesterol-lowering drugs and watching the salt in their diets.

But most people don't know how to protect themselves from cancer, says Karen Collins, nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Many people worry about possible environmental causes of cancer, such as pollution and food additives, but are unaware of proven ways to reduce their cancer risk, such as exercising and eating more vegetables, Collins says.

According to the American Cancer Society, about one-third of all cancer deaths — 186,000 lives a year — could be prevented if people were more active and ate better. Parents can help their children avoid cancer as well by encouraging healthy habits from birth, says Carolyn Runowicz, president-elect of the cancer society and co-author of The Answer to Cancer.

People with a strong family history of a type of cancer might want to consider additional steps to stay healthy, such as being screened at younger ages, Runowicz says. Though there is no way to prevent all cancers, experts agree that for most people a handful of small changes greatly increases the odds of living a longer, healthier life.

Avoid tobacco
Cigarette smoking causes at least 30% of all cancer deaths. It causes tumors of the lungs, larynx, mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, pancreas, liver, cervix, kidney, stomach, colon, rectum and some leukemias, the cancer society says. Yet it's never too late to stop. Ten years after giving up cigarettes, a person's risk of dying from lung cancer is 50% lower than if he or she had kept smoking. Even people with lung cancer improve their odds of survival if they quit, research shows.

Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight increases the risk of tumors of the colon, uterine lining, esophagus, kidney and pancreas, the cancer society says. The more weight women gain after high school, the greater their risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.

Eat more fruits and vegetables
Diets centered on fruits and vegetables help protect against cancers of the lung, mouth, esophagus, stomach and colon, the cancer society says. Groups such as the American Institute for Cancer Research encourage people to eats lots of different plant foods, because they might work best in combination.

Avoid saturated fats
To reduce the risk of colon cancer, consumers should get no more than 30% of daily calories from fat, Runowicz says in her book. She also suggests limiting high-fat dairy products to protect against prostate cancer. Low-fat diets might help avoid breast cancer as well, according to research presented in May at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Cut back on meat
Meats such as hot dogs and bacon might increase the risk of colon cancer, according to an article published in January in Journal of the American Medical Association. People who ate the most red and processed meat had a 30% higher risk of colon cancer and 40% greater risk of rectal cancer compared with those who consumed the least. People whose diets were rich in poultry and fish were 30% less likely to develop colon cancer.

Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day
Exercise controls weight and helps regulate insulin, which may be related to colon cancer. Research suggests that colon cancer patients who exercised regularly were half as likely to die of their disease. A study in JAMA found that breast cancer patients who walk three to five hours a week cut their risk of dying in half compared with sedentary women.

Practice safe sex
The human papilloma-virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, causes many cervical cancers and may contribute to oral and anal cancers as well. The most reliable ways to prevent infection are monogamous sex with an uninfected partner or using condoms, says David Soper of the Medical University of South Carolina.

Stay out of the sun
And keep children covered up, too. Up to 80% of lifetime sun exposure occurs by age 18, says the cancer society's Runowicz. She recommends staying out of the sun at midday, seeking shade, covering up and using sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB radiation and using SPF 15 lip balm.

Use alcohol in moderation
Heavy drinking contributes to oral, esophageal and liver cancers, says Ralph Coates, associate director for science in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of cancer prevention and control. Alcohol also may increase the risk of breast cancer. Women should consume no more than one drink a day and men should stop at two.

See a doctor regularly
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening adults for cervical, breast and colorectal cancers as well as screening pregnant women for hepatitis B, which is linked to liver cancer. Doctors also can treat bacterial infections that contribute to stomach cancer, Runowicz says.

Brushing and flossing might indirectly help protect against oral cancers, Runowicz says, by preventing gum disease, which might increase the risk of oral cancers, especially in people whose mouths have been damaged by drinking or smoking. She recommends that people check their own mouth and gums once a month and visit dentists regularly.

Get your vitamins
To reduce the risk of colon cancer, strive for 1,500 milligrams of calcium and 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, either through diet or supplements, Runowicz says.

Stay tuned
Doctors are learning more every day about ways to prevent cancer. A vaccine against HPV is expected to be available within a couple of years, Soper says. Scientists also are studying a number of drugs that could reduce cancer risk: aspirin for colon cancer, tamoxifen and raloxifene for breast cancer, finasteride for prostate cancer. These drugs could pose risks of their own, however. Runowicz advises people to talk to their doctors about ways to address their individual risks.