Cancer Control Month is a perfect time to reflect on positive new habits you’ve developed, and to consider those you might leave behind in the weeks and months ahead. Especially during this past year – one like no other for most of us – what habits have you picked up?
The Four-Legged Stool of Cancer Control
Almost 1.9 million people are expected to receive a new diagnosis of cancer this year. To continue the progress of reducing the burden of cancer, we need a four-legged stool.
- Early detection catches precancerous growths before they progress to cancer, and early-stage cancers while they can be treated most successfully. Progress will come with more widespread understanding about the benefits of early detection, improved access to screening and research to develop screening tests for more kinds of cancer.
- Treatment effectiveness has improved dramatically, even within just a few years. With advances in understanding cancer subtypes, optimal treatment for one person with a particular form of cancer differs from that for someone else.
- Survivorship care goes hand in hand with treatment to improve outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer. In fact, because treatment for some of our most common cancers has become so successful, initiatives to improve long-term health are now vital parts of the cancer care continuum. This can include nutrition education or cooking, support groups or cognitive/emotional resilience, a broad range of physical activity, meditation, individual survivorship plans and more. AICR has many resources to help people live in a “new normal” after cancer.
- Prevention through lifestyle choices that reduce cancer risk is the essential fourth leg of the stool in cancer control. Not every diagnosis of cancer is preventable. But most research suggests that approximately 40% of cancer cases in the U.S. could be prevented.
Reduce Cancer Risk By Overcoming Barriers You See
Scientists continue to learn about lifestyle choices that reduce risk for cancer. Yet, we’ve known about some steps for decades, and as a population, we’ve made little progress. Create a path to lower risk with these three steps:
- Fight information overwhelm by cutting through the clutter of distracting messages.
Confronted everywhere by headlines about endless ways eating habits could increase or decrease cancer risk, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed that you just give up. The most recent AICR Cancer Risk Awareness Survey shows that many people are unaware that lifestyle plays a bigger role in cancer risk than factors like pollution or an inherited predisposition for cancer.
Even among people who know that eating habits can be a powerful tool to reduce cancer risk, translating the concept of “healthy eating” into specific day-to-day choices can be confusing.
You hear that whole grains are good, but then hear stories claiming gluten – found in many of the whole grains you like – is harmful.
You hear that fruit is good, but then someone says that sugar from any source and in any amount “feeds” cancer.
You hear that too much red meat increases cancer risk, but after a few days of a dramatic shift to only-beans-and-tofu, you’re out of ideas, your family is on the verge of mutiny, and you’re ready to go back to old standards.
There is a better way to protect your health and keep your sanity. Find a few sources you can trust to accurately synthesize solid science and give yourself permission to ignore the rest. You can trust the AICR Recommendations as a “blueprint” that’s based on careful analysis of research.
- Focus on priorities that offer the biggest protective impact.
There are hundreds of small changes you could make in your eating habits. Research shows that a mostly plant-focused eating pattern is protective, so put this into practice in whatever way fits your preferences and lifestyle.
The New American Plate is AICR’s simple model of a well-balanced plate. Start by choosing plant foods – vegetables, fruits, whole grains and pulses (like dry beans) – to fill at least two-thirds of your plate. Then add more plants, or include moderate portions of seafood, poultry, dairy or meat. If you want to include red meat, keep it to no more than 12 to 18 ounces (cooked) per week. That means no more than three to six meals, depending on your portion sizes. Reserve processed meats like bacon and hot dogs for occasional use.
You don’t need to completely abandon sweets and processed snack foods. But eating too much of these foods makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight. And when they’re part of your daily routine, it’s harder to find room for the healthful foods that support antioxidant defenses and provide fiber to protect against cancer.
Healthy eating is only part of the picture for reducing cancer risk, of course. Here are three additional goals to work towards that have the most impact on cancer prevention:
Keep a healthy weight. Excessive body fat triggers inflammation and unhealthy levels of hormones that promote cancer development. If your weight has been creeping up, start with a few simple changes that can stop a weight gain trend. Research shows that cutting back on sugar-sweetened drinks, foods that are highly processed and the typical “fast food” choices can make a big difference.
Move your body every day. Moderate activity is anything at the speed or intensity of a brisk walk. Besides its help in avoiding weight gain, it protects against cancer by helping to keep healthy levels of hormones like insulin and estrogen.
Limit alcohol. It’s one of the most overlooked opportunities to help reduce risk of at least six types of cancer. AICR recommends that for cancer prevention, it is best not to drink alcohol.
- See where you are now, and take one or two steps from a blueprint guiding progress.
Excess body fat is a serious risk factor. But don’t assume a healthy weight means your eating habits are healthful.
According to a new cross-sectional study, compared to those at a healthy weight, American adults who have overweight or obesity are less likely to meet the AICR Recommendations for dietary fiber, vegetable and fruit consumption, limiting red meat, or to get even one serving of whole grains daily.
But even among people with a healthy weight, barely over 1 in 10 reached recommended dietary fiber. Less than half met the minimum recommended 2 ½ cups of non-starchy vegetables and fruit per day.
Where are your weak spots? Use AICR’s free interactive online tool, Cancer Health Check, to help you find the gaps between your current lifestyle habits and the priorities named by the recommendations. You’ll see where you’re already meeting the evidence-based recommendations, and get ideas for a few basic steps you might take to come closer.
Think about the barriers you see holding you back. What would it take for you to come closer to the recommendations you want to target? Do you need fresh ideas to include a wider variety of vegetables and fruits? Want help learning how to fix whole grains, or more ways to use pulses? Is it a lack of support, and feeling like you’re going it alone that makes change a challenge?
How Will You Take the Best and Leave the Rest Behind?
Cancer Control Month has come at a time when many of us are looking forward to brighter days ahead. Hit life’s “pause” button and stop to consider these two questions:
What habits have you picked up over the past year that would be best left behind? Is it time to get back on track following cancer screening guidelines? Are you going to choose a replacement for stress-eating and stress-drinking? Are you ready to call a halt to snacking as a form of recreational activity?
What new habits or skills have you developed that you want to keep? After months with more home-cooking, have you learned that you can make meals that are quick, delicious and healthy? Have you discovered the increased energy, improved sleep and mood that comes with a daily walk? Perhaps you – like so many of us – have gained perspective in realizing that good health is precious and not to be taken for granted?