Tips for reducing your cancer risk
Though it's impossible to predict whether or not you will develop cancer at some point in your life, there is strong scientific evidence linking certain lifestyle factors to cancer risk. By making small changes in your daily life, you may be able to prevent some types of cancer. The following resources will help you take control and be proactive.
Avoid tobacco and secondhand smoke
Tobacco use is a leading cause of cancer and death from cancer. People who use tobacco or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke have an increased risk of cancer because tobacco products have harmful chemicals that can damage DNA. Tobacco use can cause many types of cancer including cancer of the lung, larynx, mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon, rectum and cervix, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.
Northwell Health provides state-of-the-art tobacco prevention education, cessation services and clinical research in the area of nicotine dependence. We have helped thousands of people quit smoking and have some of the highest success rates in the United States. We work collaboratively with hospitals, clinics and physicians to ensure that patients are screened for tobacco use and provided assistance with quitting. Learn more here.
There are many dietary decisions you can make to better equip your body to fight cancer:
- Enjoy at least 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables every day.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains. (Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and whole wheat bread are better choices than white rice and white bread.)
- Eat a variety of fish, poultry and beans, and limit consumption of processed and red meats (beef, pork, and lamb).
- Avoid processed foods, especially those high in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and added sugars. Avoid sugary drinks, too.
Download our nutrition booklet and some healthy recipes to try at home:
- Fighting cancer with your fork
- Skinny greek yogurt spinach and artichoke dip
- Strawberry lemon infused water
- Peanut butter protein bites
Maintain a healthy weight
People who are obese may have an increased risk of cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas and gallbladder. Keeping a healthy weight may help reduce your cancer risk.
Regular physical activity helps improve your overall health and reduces your risk for many chronic diseases, including several cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents do 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day.
Adults should do the following:
- At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, or an equivalent combination
- Muscle-strengthening activities that work for all major muscle groups, two or more times per week
Limit alcohol consumption
Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver and breast. The more you drink, the higher the risk. Doctors advise people who drink to do so in moderate amounts. The federal government’s dietary guidelines define moderate alcohol drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Skin cancer is the most common and most preventable of cancers. The sun, sunlamps, and tanning booths give off ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can cause early aging of the skin and skin damage that can lead to cancer. Protecting yourself from harmful UV rays reduces not only the risk of skin cancer but also sunburn, premature wrinkles and eye damage.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office recommends taking the following precautions:
- Cover up when you are out in the sun. Wear clothing and a wide-brimmed hat to protect as much skin as possible. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UV light.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF of at least 30. Be sure to reapply at least every two hours, as well as after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps; both can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.
Cancer education and screenings
Northwell Health hosts numerous educational cancer seminars and screenings throughout the year. Find an upcoming seminar or screening near you.
Free cancer screenings for the uninsured/underinsured
Northwell Health provides free breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening services for uninsured/underinsured Nassau, Queens, Suffolk and Westchester residents between the ages of 50 and 64. Funding for these screenings is provided through the New York State Department of Health Cancer Services Program and other groups.
For information on eligibility and to make an appointment, please call:
- Long Island Jewish Medical Center – Nassau County, Queens County: (718) 470-4165
- Staten Island University Hospital – Staten Island: (718) 226-6447
- Peconic Bay Medical Center – Suffolk County: (631) 548-6320
- Northern Westchester Hospital – Westchester County: (914) 666-1289
Cancer screening outcomes
For outcomes on our free cancer screenings and lung cancer screening programs, download our PDF.
Over the course of a lifetime, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Take the breast cancer risk assessment to determine your risk.
Your risk of colon cancer increases as you age. Take our colon cancer risk assessment to estimate your personal risk.
While lung cancer deaths have dropped in the past several decades, lung cancer remains one of the leading causes of cancer in the United States. Identify your risk by taking this quick assessment.
Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed in men. Estimate your risk for prostate cancer by taking the prostate cancer health risk assessment.
Cancer screening guidelines
The breast experts at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute recommend that women at average risk begin annual mammograms at age 40. You are at average risk if you have:
- No personal history of breast or ovarian cancer
- No family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- No genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as BRCA)
- No relative with a gene mutation associated with breast cancer (such as BRCA)
- No signs or symptoms of breast cancer
- Never had radiation therapy to the chest before age 30
- Never had a breast biopsy
If you have any of the above, you could also be at a higher-than-average risk for breast cancer and you should discuss with your doctor when to begin breast cancer screening.
Want to learn more? You can:
- Learn more about mammographies and conducting a breast self exam
- Read about one woman's mammogram experience
- Read tips from a mammogram technologist
Colon cancer, rectal cancer and polyps
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), both men and women should follow one of these testing plans starting at age 45:
Tests that find polyps and cancer:
- Colonoscopy every 10 years
- CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years*
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years*
- Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years*
Tests that primarily find cancer:
- Yearly fecal immunochemical test (FIT)**
- Yearly guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)**
- Stool DNA test (sDNA) every 3 years*
*If the test is positive, a colonoscopy should be done.
** The multiple stool take-home test should be used. One test done in the office is not enough. A colonoscopy should be done if the test is positive.
The tests that can find both early cancer and polyps should be your first choice if these tests are available and you’re willing to have one of them. But the most important thing is to get tested, no matter which test you choose. Talk to a healthcare provider about which tests might be right for you.
If you are at high risk of colon cancer based on family history or other factors, you may need to be screened using a different schedule. Talk with a healthcare provider about your history and the testing plan that’s best for you.
Want to learn what a colonoscopy is really like? Read about one woman's firsthand account.
According to the ACS:
- Cervical cancer testing should start at age 21. Women under age 21 should not be tested.
- Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test done every three years. HPV testing should not be used in this age group unless it’s needed after an abnormal Pap test result.
- Women between the ages of 30 and 65 should have a Pap test plus an HPV test (called “co-testing”) done every five years. This is the preferred approach, but it’s OK to have a Pap test alone every three years.
- Women over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing in the past 10 years with normal results should not be tested for cervical cancer. Once testing is stopped, it should not be started again. Women with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 20 years after that diagnosis, even if testing goes past age 65.
- A woman who has had her uterus and cervix removed (a total hysterectomy) for reasons not related to cervical cancer and who has no history of cervical cancer or serious pre-cancer should not be tested.
- All women who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow the screening recommendations for their age groups.
- Some women—because of their health history (HIV infection, organ transplant, DES exposure, etc.)—may need a different screening schedule for cervical cancer. Talk to a healthcare provider about your history.
Endometrial (uterine) cancer
The American Cancer Society recommends that at the time of menopause, all women should be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer. Women should report any unexpected vaginal bleeding or spotting to their doctors. Some women—because of their history—may need to consider having a yearly endometrial biopsy. Please talk with a healthcare provider about your history.
The ACS does not recommend tests to check for lung cancer in people who are at average risk. But the ACS does have screening guidelines for those who are at high risk of lung cancer due to cigarette smoking. Lung cancer screening might be right for you if you are all of the following:
- 55 to 74 years of age
- In good health
- Have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history and are either still smoking or have quit within the last 15 years (A pack-year is the number of cigarette packs smoked each day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked. Someone who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years has a 30 pack-year smoking history, as does someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 15 years.)
Screening is done with an annual low-dose CT scan (LDCT) of the chest. If any of the above apply to you, talk to a healthcare provider to schedule a screening.
The ACS recommends that men make an informed decision with a healthcare provider about whether to be tested for prostate cancer. Research has not yet proven that the potential benefits of testing outweigh the harms of testing and treatment.
- Starting at age 50, men should talk to a healthcare provider about the pros and cons of testing so they can decide if testing is the right choice for them.
- If you are African-American or have a father or brother who had prostate cancer before age 65, you should have this talk with a healthcare provider starting at age 45. If you decide to be tested, you should get a PSA blood test with or without a rectal exam. How often you’re tested will depend on your PSA level.
Watch our videos for more helpful tips
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