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3 Ways to Reduce Cancer Risk

By Margaret I. Cuomo, MD

Margaret I. Cuomo, MD

What can we do to reduce our risk of getting cancer? WebMD asked Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, author of A World Without Cancer, to share some insights with us on this topic. Cuomo is a board certified radiologist who served as an attending physician in diagnostic radiology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, for many years. Specializing in body imaging, involving CT, ultrasound, MRI, and interventional procedures, much of her practice was dedicated to the diagnosis of cancer and AIDS. She is the daughter of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Mrs. Matilda Cuomo, and sister to Governor Andrew Cuomo and CNN’s Chris Cuomo, and wife of Howard S. Maier. She resides in New York.


What is the one most important step people can take to reduce cancer risk?

Maintain a healthy weight.

Obesity is a national epidemic, and is a risk factor for cancer, as well as heart disease and diabetes. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported higher death rates from at least 14 different kinds of cancer among overweight populations, and noted that the heaviest people were 50 percent more likely to die from cancer than people of normal weight.

What are some of the most troublesome chemicals we are exposed to that may cause cancer?

At least 80,000 chemicals are manufactured in the United States, and we are exposed to many of them on a daily basis. We know with alarming certainty that some of them cause cancer. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer states flatly that 100 agents in use today are “carcinogenic to humans,” and several hundred others are “probably” or “possibly” carcinogenic to humans. Yet, most of them remain unexamined and unregulated.

There are three chemicals in our daily lives that are of particular concern: Bisphenol A (BPA), perchloroethylene and parabens.

  • BPA has been associated with breast and prostate cancer in mice, and an increased risk of miscarriage and polycystic ovary disease in humans. BPA is ubiquitous in consumer products, from plastic bottles containing water and other beverages, to canned food to cashier receipts. To reduce BPA exposure, avoid plastics with a 3 or 7 recycle code on the bottom, or look for products labeled “BPA-free”.. In 2012, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and children’s drinking cups.
  • Perchloroethylene, or “perc,”, a chemical used in dry-cleaning, has been called a “likely human carcinogen” by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Workers in the dry cleaning industry have a higher incidence of several cancers, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and bladder cancer. The Natural Resources Defense Council advises that consumers seek out alternate methods of dry-cleaning.
  • Parabens are chemicals that mimic estrogens, and have been found within breast tumors. Parabens are found in moisturizers, hair care products, shaving products, processed meats, snacks, candy, and some liquid dietary supplements. The FDA has not banned parabens from consumer products, but says that it will consider new research as it becomes available. I recommend that you avoid ingredients with the word “paraben” in them, such as methylparaben.

Can vitamins and supplements help prevent cancer?

Research on taking multivitamins for cancer prevention has shown some promise in recent studies, and taking a daily multivitamin makes good sense for both men and women.

In October, 2012, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that daily use of a common multivitamin reduced the risk for cancer in a long-term study of about 15,000 male doctors. Those men taking the daily multivitamin had an 8% reduction in risk of developing cancer compared with those taking a placebo. The multivitamin use had no effect on the incidence of prostate cancer among the men studied, however. In addition, this study did not include men younger than 50 years old, nor women.

The vitamin with the best evidence for cancer prevention is vitamin D. Everyone, including children and adults, should have their vitamin D blood levels measured and then supplements should be discussed with their doctors. Many vitamin D experts internationally recommend a vitamin D blood level between 40 and 60 ng/ml, or 100 and 150 nmol/l, for cancer prevention. The daily dose of vitamin D supplementation will depend on each person’s blood level.

The most important way to get vitamins is through your diet. In A World Without Cancer, I explain that most experts recommend a plant-based diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole-grains as the best way to reduce cancer risk.

It’s also important to follow other cancer-preventing measures including exercising, ending smoking, limiting alcohol, and protecting our skin from the sun.

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