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May 7, 2015 | 4 minute read

What You Think You Know about Cancer Research (But Probably Don’t)

This month marks National Cancer Research Month, a time to recognize the many advances and impact of the research. For cancer prevention, a lot of that research is relatively recent, and so it’s not that surprising many are unaware of the latest findings. After all, it’s likely that your grandparents believed cancer was all in your genes, or just bad luck.

Now, a strong body of research shows that many cancers are preventable. While there are no guarantees when it comes to getting cancer, eating a healthy diet, staying lean and being active can reduce risk of many of the most common cancers. Not smoking will lower your risk even more.

Here are a few ideas about cancer prevention that you may have heard were true at some point, but have changed with the research.

1. Breast cancer survivors shouldn’t eat soy.
Soy foods contain phytoestrogens, which have a chemical structure similar to estrogen, and early lab research led to concerns that these foods could fuel estrogen-related cancers. Now, major population studies show that eating tofu, edamame and other soy foods in moderate amounts – 1 to 2 standard servings a day – does not increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer. That same amount of soy foods also does not increase breast cancer survivor’s risk for recurrence or earlier death, and does not show harmful interaction with anti-estrogen medications.

2. Being overweight has nothing to do with cancer.
About half of Americans think this and if you’re among them, you’re wrong. Excess body fat increases risk of ten cancers, including postmenopausal breast, colorectal and ovarian. Research now shows that, aside from not smoking, being a healthy body weight is the most important step you can take to reduce cancer risk.

3. Exercise only lowers cancer risk because it helps you lose weight.
Only about four of every ten Americans even know that inactivity relates to cancer risk, so if you thought being active could help with weight control — and thus lower cancer risk — that’s a good start. But research now shows that daily moderate activity lowers risk of several cancers, independent of weight. Activity may lower levels of hormones linked to cancer development, as well as improve metabolic factors that link to cancer risk.

4. Vitamin, mineral and other supplements can prevent cancer.
Given that fruits, vegetables and other plant foods are packed with healthful compounds, it’s understandable that researchers thought taking high amounts of these compounds could be cancer protective. But no, research has not found supplements offer cancer protection. In some cases, high doses of supplements have even been shown to cause harm. There is a lot of ongoing research with vitamin D and other supplements and some studies suggest certain groups of people may benefit. But for now, if you’re meeting all your nutrient needs: AICR recommends not to rely on supplements for cancer protection.

5. During treatment and soon after, cancer patients should rest as much as possible.
Nope. Guidelines published in 2010 urge patients and survivors to avoid inactivity, with the goal to eventually meet the physical activity recommendations for all Americans. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobics and two days of muscle strengthening activities per week as appropriate based on advice from each individual’s physician. Research suggests exercise can help survivors avoid fatigue, have improved quality of life, and possibly reduce risk of recurrence.

6. Diabetes is completely unconnected to cancer.
It looks like they’re connected. Once considered two distinct diseases, research is increasingly finding type 2 diabetes and cancers share many risk factors. Evidence now suggests that people with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk for many forms of cancer, including those of the liver, endometrium, pancreas and bladder.

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