How Lifestyle and Behavioral Changes Can Help Prevent Cancer

10prevention tips

Nearly 1.7 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer this year — and almost 600,000 will die from this devastating disease, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

But the numbers don’t have to be this high, according to Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

“If we employed what we already know, behavioral changes could prevent half of all cancers,” Dr. Caligiuri said, noting, “one third of all cancer deaths are related to smoking.”

Smoking cessation is one of the many preventative and proactive changes people can make in their daily lives to reduce their risk of cancer. February is National Cancer Prevention Month: An annual reminder to stop and think about how you can modify your behavior and daily routine to reduce the risk of cancer for you and members of your family.

“The best thing you can do is to exercise and eat a balanced, healthy diet, don’t smoke, drink in moderation, use sunscreen and get vaccinated,” said Peter Shields, MD, deputy director of the OSUCCC.

Dr. Shields is a specialist in lung cancer. On a table in his office is a collection of smoking products, a daily reminder of the devastating impact of tobacco.

“Nonsmokers don’t understand how addictive it is,” he said. “Nicotine is the most addictive substance we have and it has to be treated as an addiction. Instead of victimizing smokers, we need to help them stop.”

Smoking causes 90 percent of all lung cancer cases, at least 17 other types of cancer, and diseases of the heart, lungs and kidneys, Dr. Shields said. “It’s like sucking in smoke from a fireplace.”

Behavioral changes that lead to a better diet, more exercise and a reduced rate of obesity may be easier than smoking cessation, but not by much. A busy schedule, family obligations, stress and a fast-food culture all combine to make eating healthier and exercising more often harder.

“We know that a poor diet contributes to being overweight and obesity contributes to cancer, and that obesity causes inflammation and inflammation is a pathway to cancer,” Dr. Shields said. “And for me it starts with kids. Kids should not be overweight.”

A well-balanced diet includes less processed foods and sugar and more fruits, vegetables and grains. Regular exercise — which can be any physical activity you enjoy — is also key.

“We’re too sedentary,” said Dr. Shields, who exercises regularly, despite his hectic work schedule, and rides in Pelotonia, the grassroots bicycle tour supporting research at the OSUCCC – James. “I think that’s another reason Pelotonia is so important, it gets people out and exercising.”

Because a healthy lifestyle tends to involve outdoor activities, sunscreen is mandatory in protecting oneself against skin cancer. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. There were 73,870 new cases of melanoma reported in 2015, and 9,940 deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute.

To prevent skin cancer, limit your exposure to the sun, especially when it is high in the sky. Never go out without sunscreen; apply it 30 minutes before you go out; use sunscreen that’s at least 30 SPF and blocks UVA and UVB rays; and reapply after 90 minutes of sun exposure. If you have fair skin, be even more diligent, as the risk is higher.

Screenings are another proactive way to reduce your risk of cancer, or to detect it in its early stages. Consult with your family doctor about when to schedule screenings such as mammograms, colonoscopies and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests. It’s important to know and discuss your family history with your physician, as having one or more first-degree relatives with certain types of cancer — such as melanoma or breast cancer — can increase your odds of developing cancer.

A more widespread use of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccination would greatly reduce the number of cervical, anal, oropharyngeal (middle throat) and other genital cancers. However, the vaccination rate remains low, with less than 40 percent of girls and approximately 21 percent of boys in the United States receiving the recommended three-dose vaccine.

“The HPV vaccination is so important,” Dr. Shields said. “Everyone should get it.”

The OSUCCC – James recently joined with the 68 other NCI-designated cancer centers in calling for increased HPV vaccinations. HPV infections are responsible for approximately 27,000 new cancer diagnoses each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While there are steps that can help in preventing cancer, unfortunately there are no guarantees in the on-going battle with this deadly disease, which is why early detection and increased funding for research are so vital.

“What’s important is that people understand the risks of their behavior,” Dr. Shields said. “The people who don’t exercise, who don’t put on sunscreen, they just don’t understand the risk factors or don’t think they’ll be the (one) who gets cancer.”


If you or someone you know has received a cancer diagnosis and would like a second opinion or would like to speak to a cancer specialist, we are here to help. Call The James Line at 800-293-5066 or 614-293-5066 to make an appointment or to speak with an oncology nurse.

The James Line is a free, confidential telephone service staffed by OSUCCC – James oncology nurses to provide callers with cancer information and physician referrals. The James Line is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

If you are a referring physician, learn how to refer or transfer a patient to the OSUCCC – James.

For information on quitting smoking, visit tobaccofree.osu.edu.