Positive Side Effects: Your New Year’s Resolutions Could Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Here's how maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce your cancer risk.

For many of us, 2017’s New Year’s resolutions echo past resolutions we didn’t quite manage to keep. If your goals for 2017 include exercising more, eating better and cutting back on smoking or drinking, the experts at Huntsman Cancer Institute have some information that could help inspire success: these changes are also an integral part of protecting yourself against cancer.

Dr. Anna Beck, clinical investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, explains there are several behavioral changes that can reduce cancer risk. It’s not surprising, but giving up smoking can make a big difference. “If we could get everybody to stop smoking,” Dr. Beck says, “we would probably reduce our risks of getting cancers by well over 30 percent.” Smoking has been associated with cancer of the lungs, colon and voice box as well as leukemia and others, so quitting reduces risks for several kinds of cancer.

Most people know maintaining a healthy weight reduces risk for developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but fewer realize the role a healthy body mass index, or BMI, plays in reducing the risk of cancer. Dr. Beck notes, “Experts have known for a long time that kidney cancer and uterine cancer are associated more commonly with being overweight, but we’re now seeing that cancers like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, stomach cancer and others are tied to being overweight, so it’s clearly a risk factor.”

According to Dr. Beck, many people think consuming sugar is risky, but really, it’s about maintaining a healthy weight. She advises that those hoping to minimize their risk of cancer eat a healthy diet, a plant-based diet. “It’s not so much focusing on eliminating sugar as eating healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and tree nuts,” Dr. Beck says. Moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes each week, or intense exercise for 75 minutes each week, is another part of maintaining physical health to reduce cancer risk. So is minimizing alcohol consumption—no more than one drink a day for women and two for men, if any.

For those dubious about their ability to make changes, Dr. Beck suggests aiming for incremental improvements rather than trying for extreme change off the bat. It’s about starting down a path to a healthier lifestyle. “Evidence shows that if you can make a dietary change and stick with it for three weeks, you’re going to be more successful. We see the same with exercise programs. If you can exercise according to a certain routine for three weeks and you do it consistently, your chances of being successful are, from that point on, much higher,” Dr. Beck says.

The factor that plays the biggest role in cancer risk is something we can’t change, and that’s aging. Still, choosing to pursue a healthier lifestyle at any age and getting regular screenings can play a big role in improving health and increasing quality of life overall. That’s a resolution worth keeping.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.