Prevention is your best weapon against cancer


Today we live in the age of information. More and more data is available to help us make good decisions, about the best places to live, the best places to visit, the best careers to follow, and perhaps most importantly, how to live better, longer. This is especially true when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in Canada.

Read: Blood pressure and heart health – It’s all about risk

Living a heart-healthy lifestyle seems to be a straightforward thing:

  • Avoid excessive consumption of unhealthy fats, sugar and salt;

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables;

  • Exercise regularly;

  • Reduce your stress.

This will likely keep you at a healthy weight, reduce your chances of developing diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and together, these factors will significantly reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.

Read: You don’t have to be a gym rat to live healthier, longer

When it comes to cancer, the data on prevention is not well known. A lot of awareness effort is spent on early detection and treatment, and to be sure, programs related self-exams (for breast and testicular cancer) and regular medical testing (mammograms, colonoscopies etc.), have certainly had a big impact on improving outcomes. If cancer can be detected and treated in its early stages, or even if pre-cancerous growths can be removed before they become a problem, this is always preferable.

Somebody no doubt told you once or twice that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and we’re not here to disagree. In fact, the single best way to beat cancer is not to have cancer. But, how do we reduce our risk of cancer?

Well, for some cancers, the risk factors are more obvious. The science has been clear for decades now that smoking significantly increases your risk of developing lung cancer. In fact, your risk of getting lung cancer if you never smoked is about 0.2% for men and about 0.4% for women. That goes up to 24.4% for men and 18.5% for women who are heavy smokers. If you smoke and think that means you’re doomed, that’s not the case at all. If you quit, you risk goes back down significantly (5.5% for men and 2.6% for women).

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the possible benefits of vaping as a harm reduction strategy for smokers who are not ready to quit. Health experts generally agree that vaping may be less harmful than smoking, but that’s not to say that it’s safe. E-cigarettes haven’t been around long enough to have good data on the long-term health impacts. As a way to wean yourself off cigarettes, vaping and other nicotine replacement products may be a good option. You can talk to your doctor or pharmacist about quitting smoking and discuss the available smoking-cessation products available to decide which is the best option. Keep in mind however, that the goal should be to quit nicotine products altogether.

Watch: #AskThePharmacist: I want to quit smoking? Do those nicotine patches really work? Do I need a prescription?

Before we move on from smoking, keep in mind that it increases your chances of developing a number of different cancers, not just lung. If health experts can agree on one thing, it’s that quitting smoking (if you smoke), is the single best thing you can do to improve your health and live longer.

But what else? Well interestingly, a lot of the same health strategies that your doctor would propose to keep your heart healthy are also great for reducing cancer risk.

  • Get active – Try to get at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous physical activity, or if you are unable, go for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity. That can mean a brisk walk.

  • Eat right – Cutting down on red meat as much as possible is a great idea. Try to stick to chicken, fish and plant-based protein if you’re concerned about your protein or iron intake. And of course, eat your greens. If you can eat 2 ½ cups of fruits and veggies a day and cut out some of those processed foods, you’re ahead of the game.

  • 2 drink maximum – Alcohol use also increases your risk of many cancers, especially if you overdo it. Some doctors recommend a maximum of 2 drinks a day for men and 1 for women. The good news is that the risk is on a sliding scale, so anything you can do to cut down is going to help.

Related: What is proper nutrition for kids, really?

Your doctor would likely love it if you quit smoking and drinking, maintained an optimal weight and hit the gym 4 times a week. That’s not going to happen for most of us. The important thing to remember is that every little step matters. Exercising a little more, drinking a little less, maybe reaching for a peach instead of potato chips the next time you have the munchies. Healthy living is a journey and we all travel through it in our own way.

Related: Surviving survival - Navigating cancer care after the cancer is gone