The number of people dying from cancer continues to fall, according to the American Cancer Society’s annual report.
Between 2014 and 2015, the cancer death rate fell by 1.7 percent. Since 1991, the overall death rate has fallen 26 percent, which the American Cancer Society largely attributes to a huge decrease in smoking rates. Death rates for the four major types of cancers – lung, breast, prostate and colorectal – have all declined over the last few years.
While fewer people are dying from cancer, it is still the second leading cause of death in the U.S., with 4,700 Americans being diagnosed with cancer every day. Smoking still plays a large part in the cancer equation as the biggest cause of cancer and cancer deaths, but the American Cancer Society has found other modifiable risk factors – things people have control over and the ability to change – to be not far behind.
According to the American Cancer Society, 45 percent of cancer deaths are due to things people can change. Smoking still leads the charge, but factors such as obesity, poor diet and drinking too much alcohol fall into this category and are increasingly being linked to cancer. For example, too much alcohol has been associated with increased risk of developing breast, liver, colon or stomach cancer, while obesity has been connected to an increased risk for breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancer.
“Over the next twenty years, obesity is going to be extremely important in cancer prevention. As our rate of obesity in this country increases, so does the population’s risk of cancer,” says Dr. Heidi Memmel, a breast surgeon and co-medical director of the Caldwell Breast Center at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
Nearly half of cancer deaths could be prevented by behavior change and, in some cases, managing modifiable risk factors can prevent a certain number of people from developing cancer in the first place. Dr. Memmel says managing factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, maintaining a healthy diet (one that is rich in fruits and vegetables), and getting enough exercise is critically important to lowering your risk for developing cancer.
“These risk factors are not always easy to change immediately, but taking small steps to make change is important. Habits are best formed by taking one small step at a time,” says Dr. Memmel. “For example, adding one extra vegetable serving a day, and perhaps dropping one serving of red meat per week helps to change one’s diet slowly, and is easier to maintain than a drastic change.”
Cancer prevention tips:
- Limit alcohol consumption. Dr. Memmel says several studies have shown a significant increase in breast cancer risk associated with the age at which women begin drinking, alcohol consumption before age 30 and drinking patterns. For example, those who binge drink – drinking more than four drinks on one occasion – are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who have one drink per night. “Because nearly 70 percent of youth alcohol consumption is in the form of binge drinking, many young women are unknowingly putting themselves at higher risk of developing breast cancer.,” says Dr. Memmel. To lower your risk of breast cancer, avoid binge drinking and limit alcohol consumption. One drink per day is the recommended amount for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Dietary changes. The CDC reports that more than one-third of Americans have obesity, a risk factor for cancer that is one the rise. Make sure to include fruits and vegetables every day, especially leafy greens like kale, chard or spinach. Incorporate lean proteins such as chicken into your diet and include healthy fats found in salmon, extra virgin olive oil and nuts.
- Exercise regularly. Another way to combat obesity and lower your risk of developing cancer is to get plenty of exercise. Exercise, even without weight loss, helps reduce the risk of many cancers. Finding time to fit in workouts can be tough, but making them a priority can have a positive impact on your health. The World Health Organization recommends adults (18-64) perform at least 150 minutes – 2.5 hours – of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity throughout the week. Pick your favorite way to sweat – running, dancing, hiking – and hold yourself accountable to making time for exercise several times per week.