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AICR HealthTalk

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Can lifestyle really make much difference in cancer risk? Doesn’t cancer really come down mostly to heredity and luck?

A: A healthy lifestyle can’t prevent all cancer, but it makes a big difference. Healthy eating habits combined with regular physical activity and a healthy weight can prevent about 1 in 3 of the most common U.S. cancers. By adding avoidance of tobacco and sun damage, today’s research says we could cut the number of cancers occurring in the United States every year nearly in half.

Only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are thought to be caused by an inherited “cancer gene.” If you have a close relative (mother, father, sister or brother) who has had cancer, or if you carry a cancer gene, it’s important to get get periodic screenings on a schedule recommended by your healthcare provider. Even with a strong family history of a particular cancer, eating habits and lifestyle choices can influence whether cancer actually develops. Some people may inherit genes that make them especially sensitive to the effects of lifestyle choices.

As for luck, it’s true that whenever cells divide and reproduce, there’s potential for mutations (damaged DNA) that can possibly lead to cancer. However, the body has mechanisms to repair DNA and cause abnormal cells to self-destruct. Nutrients and phytochemicals (natural compounds in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and other plant foods) provide important support for those processes. Moreover, genes can be activated and deactivated (like switching on or off their ability to send signals), and the way we live influences that.

By limiting unhealthy foods and avoiding tobacco smoke, excess alcohol, too much sun or exposure to high levels of certain chemicals, you help reduce chances of damage to genes. Through healthy food and drink choices, combined with physical activity and a healthy weight, you provide protective influences both at the stage of initial cell damage that starts the cancer process, and throughout stages that follow, reducing potential of any damaged cells to multiply and ever develop into a clinical cancer.


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF).

Published on 06/29/2015

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