13 healthy changes you can make to lower your risk of cancer

Ana is in her 30s and believes “so far so good” in terms of her overall health. She hopes her “health account” is in the black: her weight is ok, she eats well, get lots of sleep and doesn’t smoke, but she could exercise more, and drink less alcohol.

Ana’s health is important to her but sometimes she takes it for granted. At the back of her mind, the mother-of-two thinks about two dark questions – “what if I get cancer, and how would we cope?”

Many Kiwis have similar thoughts, especially because of the heightened awareness of our rates of prostate, breast and bowel cancer. New Zealand diagnoses for all three cancers have risen since 2013.1 There are about 63 new cancer cases registered every day.2

Cancer can affect anyone at any age, but when you’re young, you expect your mind and body to keep up.  Ana knows when she’s ploughing through her 30 lengths at the pool she’s putting health dollars in the bank. It’s a matter of making sure that your health balance is in the black, and that means looking after yourself now.

Some people will be more genetically protected from cancer than others, but evidence suggests we may be able to keep some of the bad genes turned off by living a healthy lifestyle.3,4

Here are 13 proven ways to lower your risk of cancer:

1. Keep physically active 

By doing at least 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity every week, you can reduce your risk of getting a number of cancers including colon and postmenopausal breast cancer. A good way to achieve this is to aim for 30 minutes of activity five days a week.5,6 

2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit

Most diets that are protective against cancer are mainly made up from foods of plant origin.7 Eat at least five servings a day: at least three of vegetables and two of fruit.5 Vegetable and fruit intake can protect against lung cancer, colorectal cancer and other gastro-intestinal cancers.8

3. Watch your weight

Try to keep within your healthy height to weight ratio (BMI).8,9 Excess body fat is thought to increase inflammation and raise the level of substances in the body that promote cancer growth. There is evidence that being overweight or obese is a risk factor for colon, pancreatic, kidney, oesophagus, endometrium, gall bladder and liver cancer, and breast cancer in postmenopausal women.10

4. Nuts, seeds lean meats and fish

Eating at least two servings of legumes, nuts or seeds a day or at least one serving of fish and other seafood, can reduce the risk of getting some cancers. By contrast eating processed meat, and more than 500g cooked red meat each week, is linked with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.5 

5. Limit intake of processed foods

Highly processed foods often have added fat, sugar and salt, but are low in beneficial nutrients, all of which can increase risk of disease.5

6. Cut back on sugar

If you lower the amount of sugar you eat to less than 10% of your total energy intake, you can reduce your risk of putting on excess body weight, which is a risk factor for cancer.5,11

7. Increase dietary fibre

Eating at least six servings of whole grain breads, cereals, rice and pasta per day can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer.5  For men, the more fibre eaten means the lower the chance of getting prostate cancer.34

8. Moderate intake of alcohol

Less is better, but try to drink no more than two standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week; three standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week; and at least two alcohol-free days every week.13,14 

9. Quit smoking

Smoking increases the risk of developing cancers of the lung, oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and pancreas.15 It causes one in four of all cancer deaths in New Zealand.16,17 Quitline can provide support, visit quit.org.nz.

10. Get screened regularly

Many cancers can be cured if they’re found and treated in time. There are six free national screening programmes.18 

11. Vaccinate against HPV

There are high-risk strains of human papilloma virus that can cause certain types of cancers, including cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine can protect against them.19,20

12. Reduce stress 

Your mental health is a very important factor in keeping physically well. Worrying about what might happen can drain your hard earned “health dollars”. Practising mindfulness is an effective way to reduce anxiety and depression and can even bolster your immune system.21,22,23 Talking to your GP or someone you trust can help too.

13. Be sun smart 

Slip, slop, slap; keep out of the sun during the hottest part of the day and don’t get burnt by the sun. Over 90% of all skin cancer cases in New Zealand are attributed to excess sun exposure.24

Get cover

Last but not least, another good way to keep cancer concerns at bay is having good insurance in case you ever receive a cancer diagnosis. Southern Cross’ Cancer Assist plan provides a one-off payment over and above health insurance when diagnosed with a qualifying cancer. Use the one-off payment of up to $300,000 to spend on what’s important at a time when it’s needed most. Use the payment for things like additional treatments, mortgage or rent payments, home help, travel or simply taking care of life and family. Find out more here.

Written by Susie Hill, Health Navigator. Reviewed by Dr Janine Bycroft.

Cancer Assist can provide money and options when you need them most.

1. Ministry of Health New Cancer Registrations 2014 

2. Ministry of Health New Cancer Registrations 2014

3. British Journal of Cancer

4. Pharmaceutical Research, Sept 2008, Vol 25, Issue 9 pp 2097-2116. Cancer is a Preventable Disease that Requires Major Lifestyle Change 

5. Eating and activity guidelines for New Zealand Adults 

6. Development of Evidence-based Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults (18-64 years) The University of Queensland

7. Food Nutrition Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A global perspective 

8. Nutrition and the Burden of Disease New Zealand 1997–2011 

9. Guidance on Overweight, Obesity and Cancer Risk. Cancer Society 

10. Overweight is an avoidable cause of cancer in Europe.  IJC 

11. World Cancer Research Fund booklet: Eating Well and Being Active following Cancer Treatment (World Cancer Research Fund 2011)

12. Journal of Nutrition

13. Alcohol webpage. Ministry of Health 

14. Low-risk alcohol drinking advice. Alcohol.org.nz

15. Vineis, P., Alavanja, M., et al. (2004). Tobacco and cancer: recent epidemiological evidence. Journal of National Cancer Institute 96: 99-106

16. Laugesen, M. (2000). Tobacco Statistics 2000. Wellington: Cancer Society of New Zealand

17. Smoking & Tobacco

18 Cancer webpage. Ministry of Health

19. HPV. Health Navigator

20. HPV. WHO

21. Mental Health Foundation of NZ. Five Ways to Wellbeing – A best practice guide 

22. Foresight Project Mental Capital and Wellbeing One-Year Review October 2008 to November 2009

23. Mindfulness Education Group

24. Sun smart

Further supporting information

25. Nutrition and the Burden of Disease New Zealand 1997–2011 

26. Guidance on Overweight, Obesity and Cancer Risk 

27. Overweight as an avoidable cause of cancer in Europe. International Journal of Cancer 

28. European Code against Cancer 4th Edition: Alcohol drinking and cancer

29. Alcohol facts and evidence 

30. Food Nutrition Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A global perspective 

31. About skin cancer

32. Epidemiology of skin cancer. Research Review  

33. Dietary Fiber and Prostate Cancer Risk – Director’s Choice

34. Dietary Fibre and Prostate Cancer Risk

35. World Cancer Research Fund booklet: Eating Well and Being Active following Cancer Treatment (World Cancer Research Fund 2011)