8 changes science says will reduce cancer risk

Certain habits, like overeating, smoking and eating fast food, increase your risk of getting cancer. Check out these eight lifestyle habits that could reduce your cancer risk.

26 November 2019
3 minute read

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Although there is no food you can eat or exercise you can do that can prevent cancer, good lifestyle habits may help prevent up to 40% of cancer cases and 50% of cancer deaths, research has found. Here are eight lifestyle habits that science says will help lower your chances of getting cancer:

1. Maintain a healthy weightObesity is associated with certain cancers, such as of the oesophagus, colon, gallbladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, prostate and rectum.One in five people who die from cancer are overweight or obese, says Berna Harmse, a dietician specialising in oncology. So manage your weight with a healthy diet.

2. Go large on fruits and veggiesFruit and vegetables contain a combination of nutrients which help to protect your body against cancer. The five-a-day rule - two fruits and three vegetables per day or vice versa - is still best, advises Berna Harmse. “Fruit and vegetables are full of antioxidants, which play a critical role in fighting and preventing chronic diseases,” says Harmse. They are also full of fibre (see below).

3. Choose high fibre foodsA high fibre diet is strongly linked to reducing colorectal and breast cancer risk. So avoid refined carbs (fast food, white bread, pasta, white rice, pastries) and stick to high-fibre foods like oats, mielies, wholegrain rice, fruit, vegetables and legumes.


  • Take your cue from a traditional Mediterranean diet - rich in fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil
  • For breakfast, have a whole grain cereal
  • Veg and/or salad should fill half your plate, and proteins and/or carbs the rest
  • Choose a fruit rather than a sweet treat for dessert

4. Exercise moderately most daysResearch shows that moderate daily exercise reduces your risk of cancer, particularly colon and breast cancer. Just 30 minutes a day of walking, cycling or swimming - vigorous enough to noticeably increase breathing and heart rate – will do the trick.


  • Walk during your lunch breaks
  • Park a distance from the shops so you have to walk to the entrance
  • Walk up a staircase rather than take the lift

5. Quit smokingResearch shows without a doubt that smoking causes at least 15 types of cancer, in particular lung, mouth and throat cancer, but also stomach, kidney and bowel cancer. There are over 7000 harmful chemicals in tobacco, and over 69 of these chemicals (known as carcinogens) cause cancer.Do your best to quit, even if you’ve smoked for years. Research shows that smokers who stop before age 40 reduce their chance of dying prematurely from smoking-related diseases by about 90%, and by about two-thirds for those who quit by age 54. 


  • Pick a day to stop smoking and do it
  • Rid your house of all smoking paraphernalia like cigarettes and lighters
  • Avoid smokers for the first few days after you’ve stopped
  • Check out Cansa.org.za for more tips to help you quit

6. Use sunscreenRegular use of sunscreen has been found to reduce your risk of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, by 50%. This is especially important because we live in South Africa, which has the second highest incidence of skin cancer after Australia.


  • Use Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher
  • Apply sunscreen frequently
  • Cover all exposed skin

7. Cut down on alcoholResearch shows that alcohol increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, upper throat, oesophagus, larynx, breast, bowel and liver. Binge drinking or spreading your drinking out over the week makes no difference, but the less you drink, the less your risk.

8. Keep stress at bayAlthough there is no evidence to directly link stress and cancer, stress does lead to bad habits like smoking, drinking and overeating, all of which increase your cancer risk. So if stress is causing you these health problems, find ways to unwind and relax.

Make a change and reduce your riskYou can’t eliminate your risk of cancer completely. There are many genetic and environmental factors involved in the disease. But science shows that if you adopt or maintain these healthy lifestyle habits, and also have the recommended check-ups for bowel, prostate, testicular, breast, and cervical cancers, you’ll have a far less chance of getting the big ‘C’.

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