Key learning points
According to the World Health Organization, one-third to one-half of all cancers are preventable.
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer deaths in the US have declined over the past three decades.
A few relatively simple lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your cancer risk, experts say.
In a world full of bad news, here’s some good: one-third to one-half of all cancers are preventable.
More from Fortune:
According to a recent report from the American Cancer Society, cancer deaths have been declining for more than three decades — and continue to fall even with the pandemic raging. And they reliably decline by a percentage point or two every year, Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, tells WebMD. Fortune.
The positive trend is due in part to advances in treatment, including vaccines that can fight cancer in those who have it and prevent it from returning in those who have gone into remission. (There are also vaccines that can prevent it from occurring altogether.)
But the steady decline in deaths is also due to the fact that so much cancer is preventable – and it’s becoming more and more well known.
Nearly 610,000 cancer deaths are expected in the US this year, Knudsen says, a little more than 1,670 a day. The silver lining: “Eighteen percent of new cancer cases — and 16% of cancer deaths — are attributable to things people can change.”
Here are five relatively simple lifestyle changes you can make to significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer and improve your overall health.
1. Limit your drinking or stop altogether.
You read that right: Go dry. Period of time. Point.
Alcohol “has now been linked to five to six types of cancer,” Dr. Ernest Hawk, chief of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Fortune. “We used to think there was a cardiologic benefit, but that’s been largely disproven.”
While the most recent recommendations advocate avoiding alcohol completely to reduce cancer risk, women shouldn’t consume more than one drink a day if you’re not ready to cut it completely — two a day for men, according to Hawk.
2. Avoid known carcinogens like tobacco (and secondhand smoke, too).
Smoking is bad for your health, especially for your lungs. That’s not news. But despite widespread knowledge of the fact, 14% to 15% of the population still smokes, Hawk says Fortune.
In addition to being linked to lung cancer, smoking can also lead to other cancers, such as pancreatic and bladder cancer, Knudsen adds.
Those addicted to nicotine “really deserve a lot of attention and help and treatment, which is now readily available,” says Hawk. “It’s important to know that they’re not alone.”
Most smokers — more than 95% — can’t quit on their own, he says. The best strategy: “a combination of medication with counseling.” If you smoke and are willing to quit, talk to your primary care physician for help or call the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW to talk to a quit coach.
It’s worth noting that secondhand smoke can also be incredibly deadly. According to the CDC, it is responsible for nearly 7,500 lung cancer deaths each year among American adults who do not smoke. Non-smokers exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk of lung cancer by 20% to 30%. So avoid it like the plague.
3. Manage your weight with diet And excercise.
Not only will this improve your heart health and help control your blood pressure, but it will also reduce your risk of developing cancer in the future, experts say.
The best advice: exercise and eat healthy throughout your life. Some of the tips offered Fortune readers:
Fill about two-thirds of your plate with fruits and veggies, and the rest with healthy proteins like fish and poultry, advises Hawk.
Make sure your diet is varied. “Color is important,” says Knudsen, adding that dark green, red, and orange vegetables are desirable, as are high-fiber vegetables like beans and peas. And be sure to include a generous serving of whole grains as well as a rainbow of fruit choices. Avoid highly processed foods.
Make sure you get between 150 and 300 minutes of moderate exercise each week, or 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous exercise, Knudsen advises.
The closer one gets to the top end of that range, the better, says Knudsen, adding that experts don’t yet fully understand why there is a link between exercise and cancer reduction.
Still, “you should feel good on your treadmill or on a brisk walk, knowing that you’re not only doing good things for your body, but you’re also doing cancer prevention,” she adds.
While exercise is key, it’s not a panacea. Make sure you don’t lead a sedentary lifestyle otherwise, she warns: “Get up and move regularly.”
4. Wear sunscreen and don’t use tanning beds.
Again, the goal here is to reduce your sunburn exposure throughout your life, says Hawk.
“Getting sunburned at a young age is associated with long-term skin cancer risk,” he advises.
When it comes to sun safety, he recommends the following:
Wear protective clothing.
Avoid going out in the heat of the day.
Wear sunscreen every day.
“All the logical things your mom taught you turned out to be true,” he says.
5. Get to know your family risk, even if the conversation is awkward.
It’s good to know if you have a history of cancer in your family. But it’s especially crucial to be aware of cancer history in first-degree relatives — parents, siblings, and children, Hawk advises.
“Whether they had precancerous lesions or cancers, it adds to your risk,” he says.
If family members have a history of cancer, let your GP know. You are likely to be screened sooner than recommended for that type of cancer.
“In the past, at least, families have been reluctant to share news of a cancer diagnosis, even with relatives,” he says. “That’s the wrong message. Share exposures, at least among blood relatives, so everyone knows they may be at increased risk.”
Some of these lifestyle changes sound pretty simple, but we all know such things are easier said than done. Those looking to improve their overall health and reduce their cancer risk should know that “you don’t have to do this overnight,” Knudsen says.
More good news: the changes get easier with time.
“Once you start on this path, people often find they feel better — which is positive reinforcement,” she adds.
This story was originally on Fortune.com
More from Fortune: