Can You Prevent Cancer?

Cancer is a disease that we have become fearful of, and for good reason.  We all know someone who has had cancer and we have seen a spike in cancer-related news in the media.  For the first time ever, cancer has surpassed heart disease as the top cause of death in Canada.   For more information, check out Jamie's post!  The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 40-45% of all Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, and that 1 in 4 Canadians (25%) will die from it.  With those numbers it is easy to feel helpless and many of us have adopted the belief that there is nothing we can do to prevent it.  Is there really anything we can do to stop cancer? 

The Canadian Cancer Society attributes the increase in incidence of cancer as mostly a result of the aging population.  While this may be true, the other factors that increase the risk of developing cancer cannot be ignored.  Simply (and perhaps controversially) put, many cancers CAN be prevented.  While there are certainly some cases where genetics and family history take on a larger role, the sad reality is that many cases of cancer are related to things that we do have control over—diet and lifestyle. 

Risk Factors We Can Control:
  • Diet:  Below are some changes we can make to help reduce cancer risk. 
    • Eat more fruits and vegetables
    • Increase fiber
    • Limit gluten, dairy, and other “pro-inflammatory” foods
    • Reduce refined sugar
    • Reduce intake of animal products (particularly red meat)
  • Exercise:  We all know that exercising regularly has beneficial effects in our general health and in the prevention of many diseases.  Cancer is no exception.   Even moderate exercise (ie brisk walking) a few times a week can greatly reduce the risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases.
  • Weight:  Those who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop several different types of cancers.
  • Smoking:  Lung cancer is the leading cause of death related to cancer and accounts for 27% of all cancer deaths in Canada. Cancer Care Ontario estimates that 90% of lung cancers in men and at least 70% in women are attributable to smoking.  Cigarettes contain oxidants that can damage other cells of the body and so may increase the risk of developing other cancers not in the lungs.
  • Alcohol:   Even moderate consumption of alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer in women because alcohol increases estrogen in the body.  Alcohol also increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer in both men and women.
  • Limit exposure to environmental toxins:  This concept is perhaps a bit more controversial as many believe there is not enough evidence to support it.  The theory is that exposure to potentially toxic or carcinogenic substances occurs on a daily basis and most of the time we are not even aware of it.  These substances include everything from chemicals in plastics, chemicals in produce and other foods, contaminated water, and radiation from microwaves, cell phones, and other wireless devices.  Although one time exposure to these things may not be harmful, they can accumulate in our body over time and cause damage.
  • Stress:  It is difficult to determine exactly what effect stress has on the development of cancer, but emotional stressors can be just as harmful as physical stressors.  Decreasing stress levels is important for overall health and in reducing the risk of developing chronic disease.
It is important to remember that there is a “perfect storm” that occurs with the development of cancer.  It is typically due to more than one factor and often the cause(s) cannot be pinpointed at all.   With that in mind, sticking to the strictest diets, exercising, and doing all the “right” things does not mean that you are immune from cancer.  However, the importance of these controllable diet and lifestyle factors is sometimes forgotten when discussing the reasons cancer is on the rise.  By incorporating even some of the above changes in our lives, we undoubtedly can at the very least reduce the risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases.

Feel free to ask questions or comment!

All the best,


Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada, et al. Canadian Cancer Statistics 2011.

Cancer Care Ontario. Percentage of lung cancer associated with smoking: "Probably more than 90% of lung cancers in men and at least 70% in women are directly attributable to cigarette smoking". Cancer Incidence and Mortality in Ontario, 1964-2002.

Fedirko V, Tramacere I, Bagnardi V, et al. Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose-response meta-analysis of published studies. Annals of Oncology. 2011 Feb 9.

Halle M and Schoenberg M. Physical activity in the prevention and treatment of colorectal carcinoma.  Deutsches Arzteblatt International.  2009;106(44): 722-727.

Prousky J and Hoffer A. Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Clinical Nutrition. CCNM Press: 2008.


Nicole Breanne said...

And don't forget to go to the doctor! So many cancers can be treated if found early! I was diagnosed (like many women) with pre-cancerous cells on my cervix (TMI?) and apparently 1 in 5 women have it. Luckily, if found early it will likely never lead to cancer! Same goes with most cancers!

Check your boobies! Check your prostate! Report any lumps and bumps early! That would be my only other suggestion!

Great post, as always! I'm still waiting for a blog post about SUGAR! I'm married to a diabetic and would love to learn about aspartame replacements. He can't have sugar, but I HATE putting chemicals in his body. However, the complete removal of sugar is tough.

Christine Cho said...

You are absolutely right! Definitely should have included a section on screening and visiting your doctor.

I believe Nadia already forwarded you the link for the sugar post, but here it is in case anyone else is curious!

Thanks for reading!

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