How to Stay Healthy to Reduce Cancer Risk


Aside from feeling better, managing weight through a healthy lifestyle also reduces the risk of many diseases. Weight gain and obesity are established risk factors for at least eight different cancers, including breast cancer, and are responsible for thousands of cases of cancer each year in the United States. Weight is also a key contributor to other chronic conditions, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) spoke with Graham Colditz, MD, DrPh, a BCRF researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and co-author of “Together — Every Woman’s Guide to Preventing Breast Cancer.”

Are there specific foods or activities you should avoid that can impact your risk for diseases like cancer?

Here is what he had to say about the importance of weight management to reduce cancer risk, along with a few tips to help you—and your kids—turn those resolutions from a distant memory into an everyday lifestyle.When it comes to food, the single most important thing to avoid is eating too much.

It’s important to avoid too many animal products and refined grains and sugars.

Also, alcohol can be heart healthy in moderation for older adults, but even modest amounts can increase the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. Overall, moderate adult drinking is usually OK. Drinking in youth and young adulthood may be particularly bad for future adult breast cancer risk.

What is the best way to measure weight loss success? How much does the scale really matter, particularly in small changes?

Beyond diet, not smoking is key, of course, as is avoiding inactivity — both of which are linked to numerous diseases, including breast cancer. Steering clear of tanning beds and not getting too much sun are important for lowering the risk of deadly melanoma and other skin cancers.Like cleaning out the closet or doing taxes, stepping on the bathroom scale isn’t something a lot of us readily choose to do, but there is a good amount of evidence that your oft-neglected scale may be one of the best tools you have for losing weight and keeping it off. Stepping on the scale every day or every week really helps keep weight gain surprises at bay and allows you to make small adjustments to what you’re eating and how active you are. And if you’re losing weight too fast, which can hamper long-term success, it can tell you that, too.

Though body mass index (BMI) is not a perfect measure of the excess fat people carry, it is still a very good way to see where you fall in the weight range — healthy, overweight, obese or underweight. BMI uses a special calculation of weight and height. The ideal is to fall within the healthy range, which is a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. To see where you fall on the BMI scale, calculate your BMI.

What is your advice for maintaining healthy choices throughout the year and to avoid any tapering off after January?

But for most people, losing just five or ten pounds and keeping it off can have real health benefits.The key is to start with small, achievable goals, and then slowly and steadily build up from there. It’s great to have lofty goals, such as losing 30 pounds, running a marathon or swimming 10k, but the key is to progress up to them slowly. If you’ve been largely inactive for many years, start out by walking a mile or so a few times a week rather than jumping right to running three miles a day. This way you build the skills, the habits and the fitness that puts you on the path for doing more and more and staying healthy and motivated. The same approach works for losing weight, making healthy food choices and pretty much any other change in life.

Having a positive mindset helps, too. Even when staging things correctly, change can be hard. So realize you’ll likely have some setbacks that go along with your triumphs. The key is to just keep working at it and moving in the right direction.

Steps to Achieve Your Health Goals

Here are some simple day-to-day steps that can help improve overall health and lower the risk of breast cancer. Some may seem a little strange. Some may seem common sense. But each addresses an important aspect of breast health.

1. Learn to stop worrying and love your scale. It only takes about five seconds to do, but stepping on your bathroom scale at least once a week is a great way to help keep weight in check. It keeps surprise jumps in weight at bay and helps you make adjustments on the fly to what you eat and how much you exercise. Start by trying to keep weight steady and not gain. This alone can have a big impact on future disease risk. Then, after successfully keeping weight steady for a time, you can work to slowly lose weight. A pound or two a week is a good goal.

2. Stand when you watch TV. Watching TV is a double whammy when it comes to weight. It’s a sedentary activity that we often pair with mindless eating. One way to combat both is to simply stand while you watch TV for at least some of the time. It’ll get you a bit more active and help keep mindless snacking at bay. On top that, you might just watch less, which is probably good all around.

3. Wear your workout clothes to bed. Sleeping in your gym shorts and workout shirt can prime the pumps for your morning workout. It takes away one less barrier to getting out the door for your morning walk or gym workout.

4. BYOAFD — Bring your own alcohol-free drinks. So many social occasions are centered around alcohol that it can be hit and miss whether you’ll be able to find an alcohol-free drink you like. The solution? Just bring your own.

5. Do something — anything – that gets you moving every day. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by detailed exercise recommendations. Still, it’s important that we all get up and do something each day that makes up breathe harder than normal. That can be any number of things — gardening, walking, cycling, playing tennis, dancing, or whatever else you enjoy. After you get in the habit, then work toward 30 minutes or more of physical activity every day.

6. Slow it down. Surrounded by value meals and food ads, it’s no wonder many of us eat our meals and snacks without really thinking about whether or not we’re actually hungry. To put our minds in better touch with our stomachs, it’s good to slow down. Take time to ask yourself before you eat if you’re hungry. Then, when you are eating, eat slowly. You’re likely to be more satisfied with less food.

7. Drink more water and fewer sugary drinks. Sugary drinks are a major contributor to America’s weight problem. Cutting back on them is a great way to eliminate extra calories that have little or no nutritional value. Sugary drinks include things like soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and many sweetened coffee drinks. Replace these with plain water and unsweetened tea and coffee. Cut back slowly, and then the transition will be easier than you think. Start by not keeping sugary drinks at home in the fridge.

8. Cut back on mindless snacking. High-calorie snacks, like chips, candy and cookies, can add a lot of extra calories to our day’s total. Most of the time, we probably just eat them mindlessly, not even really enjoying them. Try cutting back on mindless snacking, and when you are hungry and want a snack, choose something healthier and under 200 calories, like fresh fruit or carrot sticks.

9. Don’t be shy. Breastfeed. Breastfeeding is great for both the mother and child, and can even lower the risk of breast cancer. So, don’t be shy. Except for those rare instances, do it when you need to, where you need to.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, family and even the Internet. Social support can help us all reach our health goals, so be sure to share your goals with those around you.

11. Ask Aunt Betty about the family’s health history. All women should have at least a general idea of their family history of cancer. Most times, a family history of breast cancer doesn’t raise the risk of the disease much more than other risk factors, though sometimes it can greatly increase the risk. Certain steps can help women at high risk lower or manage their risk.

For your kids:

Reducing cancer risk can begin early in life. Here are a few tips to help your kids achieve an overall healthier life—for benefits that continue into late adulthood.

1. Let your kids be kids. When it comes down to it, kids love to be active. As parents, it’s important that we give our kids the opportunity every day to move and play.

2. Double down on “eat your vegetables” .Growing evidence shows that a plant-based diet in youth and young adulthood is important for lifelong breast health. So, try to serve your kids a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains from an early age.

3. Talk with your kids early about tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco and alcohol are important breast cancer risk factors, and drinking and smoking in youth and young adulthood seem particularly key when it comes to adult breast health. It’s good to start conversations early with your kids about avoiding tobacco and alcohol.

4. Be honest with yourself about your kid’s weight. It’s not uncommon for parents to have trouble seeing that their child is overweight. It’s important to be honest about where your child falls in the weight range, so you can help them make any necessary changes to what they eat and how active they are. (see CDC: About Child and Teen BMI)

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