No one likes to think about cancer. But being proactive about cancer prevention and early detection could be lifesaving.
“There’s a lot people can do to lower their risk of developing cancer, as well as their risk of having more advanced stages of cancer when it’s diagnosed,” says Lise Alschuler, ND, associate director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, Arizona.
Alschuler helps break down potential symptoms of cancer and proactive efforts to take at different stages of life. Just remember, many cancer symptoms overlap those of other conditions. (So, don’t play doctor.)
You know your child best, so you may be the first to notice something unusual that might point to cancer.
Common cancers in kids
|Type of cancer||Common symptoms|
|leukemia||unexplained tiredness; easy bruising|
|brain||persistent headaches; new seizures; dramatic personality change|
|lymphoma||one or more swollen lymph nodes|
|bone||leg pain or other bone pain that persists|
Most childhood cancers aren’t due to lifestyle. But the habits you instill in kids may help prevent cancer when they’re adults.
Keep regular checkups
Routine blood tests can show potential signs of some cancers, including leukemia.
Encourage physical activity
Exercise lowers cancer risk.
Teach sun safety
Visit ewg.org/sunscreen for a list of safe, effective sunscreens. Discourage indoor tanning.
Just one indoor tanning session increases the chance of melanoma skin cancer by 20 percent. Melanoma risk doubles when indoor tanning use starts before the age of 35.
Some cancer symptoms are vague. “Unexplained fatigue is commonly a cancer symptom in adults,” says Alschuler. “But you need to rule out other factors, like anemia and depression.”
Common cancers in adults
|Type of cancer||Common symptoms|
|breast||unexplained lump or swelling|
|prostate||trouble urinating or increased urination frequency|
|colorectal||persistent change in bowel habits; blood in stool|
|lung||unexplained, prolonged cough|
Alschuler says nonsmokers and women (even if they don’t smoke) are the groups experiencing the fastest rise in lung cancer cases. Several factors could be to blame, such as radon in homes, second-hand smoke, and air pollution.
Several screenings—including mammograms, prostate tests, and colonoscopies—are generally started between ages 40 and 50, depending on personal risk.
Maintain a healthy weight
Excess body fat increases risk of many cancers.
Limit alcohol and avoid smoking
Both are known causes of cancer.
Be a teetotaler
The less alcohol you drink (of any kind), the lower your risk for cancer.
“As people age, their body doesn’t work quite as well as it used to, and they may have more aches and pains,” says Alschuler. “So, it can be harder to understand what might be cancer.”
Many cancers common in middle-aged adults (see previous section) are even more common in older adults.
Other common cancers in older adults
|Type of cancer||Common symptoms|
|leukemia||significantly lower energy level over a period of a few months; frequent infections; swollen lymph nodes|
|skin||change in appearance of a mole|
|bladder||blood in urine; frequent and/or painful urination|
Unexplained weight loss can also signal cancer, but that can also be due to many other factors in older adults, says Alschuler. So, consult a health care practitioner.
Decide with your doctor which cancer screenings are still right for you.
Check your skin regularly
A dermatologist can evaluate any concerns.
Monitor your weight
Weigh yourself at least every month.
“Many different dietary patterns are associated with a reduced risk of cancer,” says Ellen Conte, ND, a clinician scientist at Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in Ontario. “So, you can adapt dietary recommendations to your eating style.”
Foods to include
|Type of food||Benefits|
|nonstarchy vegetables, especially green leafy and cruciferous ones such as kale and broccoli||contain fibre and cancer-preventive compounds, including anti-inflammatory agents|
|whole fruit, particularly berries||naturally high in antioxidants and good source of fibre|
|mushrooms, such as reishi and maitake||contain beta glucans, which support immune function|
|oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, and herring||are high in anti-inflammatory EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 fats|
|plant proteins, including beans, lentils, tofu, and edamame||contain fibre and other cancer-preventive compounds|
|whole grains, especially oats and barley||supply beta glucans and other fibre|
|extra-virgin olive oil||rich in antioxidants and fine for moderate-heat cooking|
|herbs and spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and onions||contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds|
Foods to limit
Items to limit or avoid are red meat (especially processed red meat and charred meat), added sugars, highly processed foods, fast foods, and alcohol, says Conte. All are linked with an increased risk of cancer.
If you were to take only one supplement to aid your cancer prevention efforts, both Conte and Alschuler say vitamin D has the strongest evidence of a benefit. That said, ask your health care practitioner to test your vitamin D level. “Some people may need more vitamin D than others to have sufficient levels in their body,” says Conte.
Many other supplements might help with cancer prevention (see sidebar, “Supplement your anticancer lifestyle”). But use them to complement a healthy lifestyle, not as a band-aid for unhealthy habits.
“More important than any supplement you could take, the biggest impact on cancer prevention comes from maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, following a healthy dietary pattern, avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol, and practising sun safety,” concludes Conte.
How to: Breast self-exam
Opinions on the value of monthly breast self-exams vary. But it’s helpful to know what “normal” feels like for you. That comes from checking your breasts regularly, both visually and by touch.
Looking in a mirror with hands at your sides, check for changes in appearance such as dimpling or discoloration. Repeat the inspection with your hands firmly on your hips, and then again with your arms raised over your head and the palms of your hands together.
Either lying on your back or while showering, imagine a sliced pie over your breast and use the pads of your three middle fingers to methodically palpate the breast in “slices.” Use light, medium, and then firm pressure to feel each section for anything unusual. Repeat with the other breast.
Follow up with your doctor if anything seems abnormal for you.
Supplement your anticancer lifestyle
Preliminary studies suggest several supplements may aid cancer prevention. Many of them may address immune system dysfunction and heightened inflammation, which are significant factors in cancer risk.
Based on your individual concerns, consider these supplements.
|Supplement||Based on preliminary studies …|
|berberine||300 mg taken twice daily reduced the recurrence of precancerous colorectal polyps|
|curcumin||this turmeric extract promotes heathy turnover of cells and helps regulate inflammation|
|EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate)||may inhibit the initiation, promotion, and progression of several cancers|
|lycopene||may help block steps in cancer development, such as in prostate cells|
|mushroom extracts||may activate or moderate the immune system to inhibit cancers|
|omega-3s||eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DHA) are potent omega-3s to help keep inflammation in check, such as in colon cells|
|vitamin D||low blood levels of this nutrient are linked with increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer|