Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;77(11):1579-1580

See related article on lifestyle interventions.

There are things you can do each day to help your health and lower your risk of cancer. The best ways to lower your cancer risk are to stop smoking, be at a healthy weight, be active, and eat a healthy diet. Limiting how much alcohol you drink is also important. If you are a cancer survivor, these same things can improve your overall health and help you live longer.

Why is my weight important?

Reaching and staying at a healthy weight lowers your risk of many different cancers. It can also improve your chance of survival. Staying at a healthy weight will also help lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Ask your doctor what a healthy weight would be for you. If you are above a healthy weight, even losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight will help your health.

Why is being active important?

Being active on a regular basis can lower your risk of colorectal and breast cancers, as well as other cancers related to being overweight. Regular physical activity is important for cancer survivors because it can help reduce tiredness and stress. It can help improve self-esteem, heart and muscle strength, and body composition (for example, stronger bones, more muscle, and less body fat).

Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity at least five days per week. Try to keep a medium- to high-intensity level of activity. You can become more active by adding even a moderate amount of activity into your daily routine.

Most adults can do moderate activity without checking with their doctors. However, if you are a man older than 40 years, a woman older than 50 years, or if you are a cancer survivor, ask your doctor before starting a high-intensity exercise program.

What foods should I eat?

A healthy diet includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and a limited amount of processed and red meats. You should eat at least five servings of colorful vegetables and fruits each day. Choose whole grain breads, cereals, rice, and pasta. Eat dried beans, fish and poultry (e.g., chicken) instead of beef, pork, and lamb.

What about drinking alcohol?

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of many cancers, including cancers of the mouth, throat, breast, and liver. People who have survived head and neck cancer should avoid drinking alcohol because it can increase side effects and reduce the effectiveness of treatment and decrease survival.

If you do drink alcohol, do not have more than two drinks per day if you are a man or more than one per day if you are a woman.

What can I do to lower my risk of cancer?

Start with one or two changes and slowly try new ways to improve your health each day. Here's what you can do:

  • Watch how much you eat, especially with foods and drinks high in calories, fat, and added sugars.

  • Eat vegetables, fruits, and other low-calorie foods and drinks. Include colorful vegetables and fruits in every meal and for snacks. For example, eat fruit for dessert instead of ice cream.

  • When you eat out, choose food lower in calories, fat, and sugar, and choose smaller amounts. For example, have an appetizer or a child- or senior-portion meal instead of a larger meal.

  • Choose whole grain rice, bread, pasta, and cereals.

  • Avoid sugary foods, including pastries, sweetened cereals, and other sweets.

  • Choose fish, poultry, or beans instead of beef, pork, and lamb.

  • Set aside time each day to be active, and look for ways to include more activity during the day.

  • Set a weight goal and weigh yourself each week.

Where can I find more information?

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Cancer Society

American College of Sports Medicine

American Dietetic Association

American Institute for Cancer Research

Lance Armstrong Foundation

National Cancer Institute (Cancer Information Service)

U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Services

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