Crazy Simple Ways to Prevent Breast Cancer (and More!)

by Sunny Sea Gold Health Writer

Here are two cancer truths we think everyone can agree on: These diseases are scary and can feel pretty random, even though one in three Americans will develop some form of cancer over their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But you’re not powerless here. There’s actually a lot you can do pare down (even slash!) your risk of developing breast cancer, colon cancer, and more. In fact, more than 40 percent of malignancies are preventable, says the American Cancer Society. That's pretty encouraging, right? Here are some everyday strategies to stack the odds in your favor.

woman laying down next to pool, hat covering face

Get Your Vitamin D Level Tested

“Vitamin D is very important in cancer prevention,” says Jonathan Stegall, M.D., medical director at The Center for Advanced Medicine, an integrative cancer-treatment center in Alpharetta, GA. “The results of the Nurses’ Health Study found that women with a blood level of 50 ng/mL had a 50% reduction in their risk of developing breast cancer.” Our bodies make vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight, and it’s also found in some foods, such as seafood, milk, and eggs. Still, many people need more. One recent study found that 41 percent of adults are D deficient. Ask your doctor if a supplement makes sense.

Skip the Second (or Third) Beer

Like tobacco, booze is a carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program. Even light to moderate drinking may increase the risk of breast cancer, for example; authors of research in Current Breast Cancer Reports found a 30 to 50 percent increase in risk of the disease with one to two drinks daily, but lower intake is recommended. “The cancer-promoting mechanism of alcohol seems to be its ability to promote inflammation, as well as its ability to increase estrogen levels,” explains Dr. Stegall—both factors believed to spur tumor growth. Ready to play it safe? Limit yourself to no more than two alcoholic beverages a day if you’re male, and one if you’re female, says the CDC.

nurse on night shift looking frustrated

Limit Shift Work if You Can

Women who regularly work the night shift may be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer—although it takes 20 to 30 years to have this effect, according to 2018 research in the Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The culprit may be long-term exposure to artificial lighting, which suppresses melatonin production and disrupts normal circadian rhythms that can result in trimming of little cap-like structures on chromosomes (telomeres) that protect DNA from damage. A 2017 study in the journal Cancer Medicine found that women who did shift work had shorter telomeres—and an increased breast cancer risk.

Cut Back on the BBQ

Barbecuing or frying any type of meat over high temperatures creates substances called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Animal studies have found that these chemicals can cause changes in DNA that may boost the risk of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Charred or well-done meat collects more of these carcinogens than rare or less well-done cuts. One way to reduce the amount of HCAs and PAHs is to marinate first: A seminal study by researchers at Kansas State University found that marinating steaks for an hour in oil, vinegar, and spices slashed the production of these chemicals by more than half.

Feed the Good Bacteria

Bacteria, fungi, and other microbes in the digestive system—collectively called the “gut microbiome”—are now thought to influence cancer risk, according to a 2019 study in the journal Cancers. “With a poor diet, one can develop dysbiosis, which is a microbial imbalance within the gut; this can negatively affect one’s immune system and possibly trigger tumor growth,” explains Monisha Bhanote, M.D., a triple board-certified physician at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center in Jacksonville, FL. A possible antidote? Healthy foods. “Fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, as do omega-3 fats from foods like seafood and walnuts,” says Dr. Bhanote. In short, some foods really can prevent cancer.

man using standing desk in office

Just Stand Up!

People who spend most of the day sitting are more likely to develop colon and endometrial cancer than folks who move around, research shows. A large meta-analysis of studies published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that every 2-hour increase in sitting time is associated with an 8% bump in colon cancer risk and a 10% jump in endometrial cancer risk. Perhaps it’s time to ask the boss for a standing desk. If that isn’t gonna happen, get reminders to stand up and walk around throughout your day with the Stand Up! smart phone app or “stand reminders” on the Activity app on Apple Watch.

pulling condom out of pocket

Practice Safer Sex

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common sexually transmitted virus—nearly all sexually active people get it at some point, CDC. While most infections clear up on their own, certain strains can lead to cervical, anal, throat, vaginal, vulvar, and mouth cancers. Aside from the generally unpopular choice of abstinence, your options for prevention include using male or female condoms, which dramatically lower risk, or getting the HPV vaccine, which is almost 100 percent effective. The CDC recommends that kids get vaccinated at age 11 or 12; other recommendations apply to older ages. HPV Vaccines are effective at preventing the specific subtypes of HPV. While they will help prevent infection and reduce the risk of HPV-related cancers, they do not completely guard against every type of HPV infection and possible related cancers.

Check Your Indoor Air Quality

About 1 in 15 U.S. homes has elevated levels of radon—a colorless, odorless natural gas that seeps up from the soil and can get trapped indoors. Radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer, after smoking, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most counties in Wyoming, Montana, New York, and much of the Midwest have average indoor radon readings over the safe limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Check this hotspot map to see if you live in a radon zone, then request a test kit to measure your own indoor air. If it's elevated, you’ll want to invest in remediation. Find a certified professional to do it.

Skip TV Tonight

A study of more than 90,000 women found that women who watched more than two hours of television per day had a 69% increased risk of getting colon cancer before age 50 compared with those who didn’t watch any TV. Television itself isn’t necessarily dangerous—rather, watching a lot of it is a sign of a generally inactive lifestyle. Being active has the opposite effect on cancer risk. The amount of exercise needed to reap anti-cancer benefits is approximately 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise, says Dr. Stegall.

barista pouring latte

Hit Starbucks in the Morning

Antioxidants in green and black tea have been shown to protect cells against DNA damage that can lead to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. A study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests coffee may protect against tumors, too. So feel free to indulge your caffeine habit with a hot or iced chai or latte—just beware of the fancy drinks ones with too much sugar! A recent French study linked high intake of sugary beverages to increased cancer risk.

Sunny Sea Gold
Meet Our Writer
Sunny Sea Gold

Sunny is a health journalist with deep expertise in women's and children’s health who has written for some of the largest and most well-known print and digital publications in the United States. She’s also the author of the book Food: The Good Girl’s Drug, and writes essays and reported pieces on body image, eating disorders, parenthood, and mental health. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and two daughters.