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Cancer-Proof Your Body

We know more about preventing cancer than ever before. Implement these six surprising tips into your daily life and you will be well on your way to stopping this frightening disease before it strikes you.

By Sandra Gordon

Cancer-Proof Your Body

Sometimes it can feel like every other person you know is getting cancer—and everyone else is worrying about when they might receive the same dreaded diagnosis. While it's true that more than 10 million Americans are battling some form of the disease, cancer is more preventable than you might think. In fact, 90% to 95% of cancers develop as a result of factors you have control over. Much of it boils down to your diet and exercise habits.

You have the ability to turbocharge your immune system, keep your hormonal mix at healthy levels, and help defend your body's cells from DNA damage so that cancer has far less of a chance. And as an added bonus, following anti-C strategies will also help you maintain an optimal weight and cut your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Call it "healthy multitasking."

Strive for Your High School Weight

Staying lean throughout your life is one of the most important things you can do to stay cancer free, according to a groundbreaking report on cancer prevention by the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). Aim for a body mass index (BMI) in the range of 21 to 23 (calculate yours at familycircle.com/bmi). "Any weight gain after age 18 (excluding pregnancy) is mostly fat," says Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. And excess body fat produces unhealthy hormone levels and releases inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream that can influence cell growth, upping the risk of cancer of the esophagus, colon, rectum, endometrium, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, and kidneys. Weight gain after menopause is particularly dangerous: Your risk of breast cancer increases by about 10% with every 11 pounds you tack on to your frame.

If your BMI is more than 23, work on losing 5% of your body weight in the next six months, Dr. Willett advises. If you weigh 160 pounds, that's just 8 pounds. Once you achieve that goal, then go for another 5%. Come as close as you can to your ideal BMI. Seem too ambitious? Then at least hold steady. "Even just losing that initial 5% and keeping it off will reduce your cancer risk," Dr. Willett says.

If you're at a healthy BMI now, keep close tabs on your weight. If it starts to creep up (a 5-pound jump is Dr. Willett's red flag), stop gaining more and take steps to lose. Concentrate on eating foods that are low in energy density, such as whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as fruits and vegetables. These foods are bulky but low in fat, so you'll fill up on fewer calories and won't feel deprived. Also, monitor the calories you drink. Research cites sugary, calorie-laden beverages such as non-diet sodas and juice-flavored drinks as a major contributor to weight gain. That's because they're not satiating. Your brain constantly tracks the number of calories you consume so that you usually know when to put down your fork. But about 30% of liquid calories can slide in under your brain's monitoring radar.

Get Up and Move It, Shake It, or at Least Take a Walk

Regular exercise not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, it also most likely reduces the risk of colon, endometrium, lung, pancreas, and breast cancer. That's because keeping active strengthens the immune system, helps lower body fat, and regulates hormone levels. "With each step you take throughout the day, you're changing your body chemistry to prevent rather than promote cancer," says Karen Collins, R.D., the AICR's nutrition adviser. Make 60 minutes of moderate activity daily your goal (which can be broken up into 10-minute increments throughout the day). This is especially important starting at around age 40 in order to compensate for the natural, age-related wane in hormones such as estrogen that help maintain bone and calorie-burning muscle. "Basically, if you don't increase your physical activity level as you get older, you'll inevitably gain weight," Dr. Willett says.

Find a fitness walk to train for, such as a local 5K or half-marathon. Then commit to an hour a day of brisk walking to get in shape for the event. Sound like a lot? "If you're committed to your goal, you'll find a way to fit in an hour's worth of exercise, no matter how busy you are," says Laurie Bagley, an online fitness coach in Weed, California. The key to making it happen is to reserve time for exercise appointments in your day planner, just as you would for business meetings.

Also, think about where your schedule provides pockets of exercise opportunity. "Many people watch TV from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night. That's lost time for activity," says Steven H. Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Why not use a portion of this time for a bike ride, a walk with your family, or an exercise DVD, before rewarding yourself with your favorite show.

Pile On the Greens

You don't have to be a vegetarian, but eating a plant-based diet provides a health insurance policy against a range of cancers, including those of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon, lung, and pancreas. Always fill two-thirds of your plate with veggies and whole grains, and devote just one-third to red meat, chicken, or fish.

Start by eating more dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, and romaine lettuce. Studies show that about half of all Americans eat no leafy greens, which leaves a huge hole in our diets, Dr. Willett says. We're missing out on cancer-fighting vitamins A, C, E, and B6, folate, and phytochemicals, which strengthen the immune system and protect cells and DNA from the oxidative damage that can lead to cancer.

Also increase your intake of vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, along with garlic, fruits, and whole grains, all of which contain a mix of nutrients and bioactive compounds such as beta-carotene, lycopene, quercetin, and vitamins that guard against cell damage. They're also low in calorie density, so you can eat more of them (and their cancer-fighting nutrients) without gaining weight.

Relegate Meat to a Side-Dish Status

The latest research shows that having more than 18 ounces of red meat like beef, pork, and lamb per week (about 2.5 ounces per day) can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Similarly, any portion of processed meat, such as ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, sausage, bratwurst, frankfurters, or pepperoni, will also raise your risk. That's because carcinogens can form when meat is smoked, cured, or salted, or when preservatives such as nitrates are added. "Sure you can have an occasional hot dog at a baseball game," Collins says, "but it shouldn't be a regular habit."

Fish and chicken are better options but should still be considered accessories to your diet. Roast or bake fish, chicken or red meat whenever possible. Meat that is fried, grilled, barbecued, or broiled, and cooked to 400 degrees or more, or over a direct flame, can form a chemical on its surface that may pose a cancer risk.

Use the weekends to plan menus, shop, prep produce, and batch-cook healthy meals so they're good to go. "To eat healthier, you have to make it a priority. Think ahead and have the food on hand," says Katherine Tallmadge, R.D., author of Diet Simple (LifeLine Press) and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Think Before You Drink

As you have probably heard, one daily drink of any type of alcohol may help reduce the risk of heart disease (that's 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor). But there's a downside that you must consider: That same glass can up your risk of breast, mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, and colon cancer, especially if that one drink turns into two or three. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association involving more than 300,000 women found that drinking one glass of wine every day boosts a woman's risk of breast cancer by 9%. And women who drank more had an even higher risk.

Alcohol negatively influences hormone levels and acts as a solvent, enhancing the penetration of carcinogens into cells, which may fuel the cancer process. The AICR recommends limiting alcohol to one daily drink or, preferably, not drinking at all.

If you really want to unwind with a drink after work or have a glass of wine with dinner, go ahead and have one judicious glass. Just don't make it a regular ritual. "Drink only when it really matters to you," suggests Robert Rhode, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center in Tucson.

Treat Yourself to Milk, Cookies and a Vitamin D

It's fairly well documented that getting plenty of calcium and vitamin D can help ward off bone-thinning osteoporosis, but that's not the only thing this dynamic duo can do. A recent study of more than 1,000 women found that those who got the recommended intake of calcium and hefty daily doses of vitamin D (1,100 IU per day) reduced their risk of all cancers by a whopping 60%. It's hard for many people to believe that a little pill and a few extra glasses of skim milk can prevent 60% of all cancers, admits the study's lead researcher, Joan Lappe, Ph.D., R.D., of the Osteoporosis Research Center at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. In fact, unless more studies corroborate the evidence, the National Cancer Institute and the AICR are willing to state only that vitamin D "may" play a role in cancer prevention. Lappe, on the other hand, is so convinced, she takes two 2,000 IU doses of vitamin D daily, which is the maximum intake that's considered safe. She also gets 1,200mg of calcium a day by consuming dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk.

To lower your risk of cancer and osteoporosis, get at least the recommended levels of calcium and vitamin D. For women 19 to 50, that's 1,200mg of calcium per day (found in three 8-ounce glasses of skim milk) and 800 IU of vitamin D. (Milk is typically fortified with 100 IU per 8-ounce glass.) Women ages 51 to 70 should get 1,500mg per day of calcium (a 4-ounce container of yogurt contains about 200mg) and 1,000 IU a day of vitamin D. Studies show that most women in the U.S. fall short, getting only 90 IU to 114 IU of vitamin D and 590mg of calcium daily.

Be a Quitter

Smoking leads to far more than just lung cancer. It has been linked to at least 15 other cancers and accounts for some 30% of all cancer deaths. If you smoke, boost your odds of successfully kicking the habit with smoking cessation aids that help with nicotine withdrawal, such as nicotine gum, patches, inhalers, lozenges, sprays, or prescription drugs, such as Zyban, Wellbutrin (bupropion), or Chantix (varenicline). If you're interested in Chantix, take note: The FDA reported that it has been linked to psychiatric problems. "Using any one of these FDA-approved therapies can double or triple your odds of success," says Douglas Jorenby, Ph.D., director of clinical services at the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention in Madison, Wisconsin.

Don't Believe Everything You Hear or Read

Myths about cancer are pervasive, and can sometimes scare people unnecessarily and cause them to lose sight of the recommendations that have been proved to reduce risk. Contrary to popular belief, "You most likely can't get breast cancer from electric blankets, antiperspirants, computer monitors, microwave ovens, or underwire bras," says Family Circle Health Advisory Board member Jason Theodosakis, M.D. Since the debate over the safety of cell phones continues, play it safe by wearing earbuds, he says.

For Women at Higher Risk

If you're at increased risk for breast cancer because you have one or more risk factors, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene alteration, weight gain during adulthood or a strong family history (a mother or sister with the disease), lifestyle changes alone may not be enough, says Mary Daly, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Family Risk Assessment Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Speak with your doctor about tamoxifen, which is recommended for high-risk pre- and post-menopausal women. The drug blocks the effects of too much estrogen, reducing the risk of breast cancer significantly.


Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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