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8 things you can do to reduce your risk of developing cancer

A woman with cancer smiles as she piggy backs a young girl

Things we can all do to reduce our chances of getting cancer

A woman with cancer smiles as she piggy backs a young girl

It’s estimated that one in every two Aussies is diagnosed with some form of cancer by the age of 85 and while some people have a higher risk than others, there are things we can all do to reduce our chances of getting cancer.

What are cancer risk factors?

While we don’t always know exactly why some people get cancer and others don’t, we do know that for many types of cancer it comes down to a combination of different risk factors, and how they interact.

Risk factors are things that can increase your risk of getting cancer - there are some factors we can control and others we can’t. Things like your family history and age can’t be changed - these are risk factors you just have to live with. But other risk factors, such as diet and exercise, can be modified to reduce your individual risk of cancer.

What’s my risk of getting cancer?

With the support of nib foundation, Cancer Council Queensland has developed a Cancer Risk Calculator to help you make the best possible lifestyle decisions.

The calculator takes you through a series of questions – on everything from nutrition to sun safety – revealing areas you’re doing well in, and areas that need improvement. As well as breaking down your results, your personalised Cancer Risk Scorecard arms you with tips and resources to help reduce your cancer risk.

What causes cancer?

All cancers develop as a result of alterations, or mutations, in genes. Usually, several gene mutations are needed to cause cancer.

Between 5-20% of cancers develop because of inherited gene mutations - gene alterations that you inherit from one or both parents. It’s much more common for cancer-causing gene mutations to happen when your DNA is damaged or altered by other factors, including lifestyle and environmental factors. In fact, about a third of all cases of cancer in Australia are caused by these modifiable risk factors.

Credit: nib health insurance

What can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?

It’s not possible for you to reduce your cancer risk to zero. But by focusing on things you can control, you give yourself the best chance of remaining cancer-free.

1. Don't smoke

Smoking is the biggest known modifiable risk factor for cancer in Australia. It doesn’t just cause lung cancer - its effects are much more wide-ranging. Smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, bladder, bowel and breast, among others.

Second-hand smoking (breathing in other people’s cigarette smoke) can also cause cancer. So, if you’re a smoker, the single best thing you can do for your health (and the health of those around you) is to quit.

Related: How I successfully quit: Three ex-smokers share their stories

2. Eat healthily

It’s not just the amount you eat that’s important - eating certain foods and avoiding others can help protect you against some cancers.

High-fibre diets that contain wholegrains, fruit and veggies are protective against bowel cancer - and dairy also seems to lower your risk of bowel cancer. Eating enough fibre, fruit and veg may also help reduce your risk of lung, stomach and oesophageal cancers.

Avoid eating processed meats (such as salami, ham and bacon) as much as possible and limit your intake of red meat to help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

Eating a healthy and varied diet will not only reduce your cancer risk, but it will also help you maintain a healthy weight and improve your general health.

Related: Bowel cancer prevention: Why fibre should be on your shopping list

3. Don’t drink too much

Excess alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of liver, breast, mouth, throat, oesophageal and bowel cancers.

The NHMRC guidelines are to limit the amount you drink to no more than two standard drinks per day and aim for some alcohol-free days every week but any reduction is helpful. Women may further benefit from setting their limit at one standard drink a day. We’ve partnered with Dr Sandro Demaio to find out more about the effects of alcohol in our article Is it time to rethink the amount of alcohol we drink?

4. Exercise

Exercise helps us feel good, both physically and mentally, but did you know it can also reduce your cancer risk?

Being physically active for just half an hour five times a week has been shown to reduce the risk of bowel cancer. More than 150 minutes of physical activity per week also reduces the risk of breast cancer (in women who have been through menopause), and cancer of the uterus.

For maximum protection against cancer, the Cancer Council recommends we get 30 minutes of vigorous or 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily. The more physical activity you get, the better. But it’s okay to start slowly and it doesn’t have to be organised sport to be helpful.

Limit activities like watching TV or playing computer games, because sitting still for long periods can increase your cancer risk. If you have to sit for work, get up every 30 minutes and move around.

A female doctor talks to a cancer patient in her office

5. Watch your weight

Some cancers have been found to be linked to being overweight. So, by keeping trim, you can reduce your risk of getting cancer. If you find it hard to lose weight or simply don’t know where to start, talk to your doctor about weight loss strategies that are likely to suit you. Limiting sugary drinks and fast food is often a good starting point.

6. Be sun safe

Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, and most skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. So, cover up and protect yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays. It’s also a good idea to be familiar with how your skin looks and to see your GP if you notice any changes.

Related: 5 sun safety myths you need to stop believing

7. Get vaccinated

Some cancers are caused by infections, so it makes sense to do everything you can to avoid them including getting vaccinated.

Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B helps prevent some types of liver cancer and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine helps protect against cervical, anogenital, mouth and throat cancers. For more information on vaccinations, check out our article The biggest vaccination myths, busted.

8. Get tested

Screening programs are available in Australia for several common cancers. Cervical cancer screening tests (formerly Pap smears), mammograms (to screen for breast cancer) and bowel cancer screening tests are recommended for Australians at different ages and are free of charge.

Bear in mind that cancer risk is individual and different and more focussed testing may be recommended for people with a strong family or personal history of cancer, a condition that puts them at increased risk or those who have symptoms such as a lump, weight loss or bleeding

Screening is not appropriate in those circumstances as there needs to be a more active search for what’s going on and you should speak to your doctor in this instance.

Overall, adopting a healthy lifestyle and having regular check-ups with your doctor will give you the best shot at good overall health, as well as a reduced risk of cancer. For more information on the kinds of health checks you should be getting, we’ve put together a handy health check guide for every stage of life.

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