What Can I Do to Prevent Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 16, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

You've heard a lot about how important it is to cut your risk of cancer, but you probably wonder: Just how much is really in your own hands?

"There is no bomb-proof way to completely prevent cancer," says James Hamrick, MD, chief of oncology at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. But changes to your lifestyle and the right screening tests can lower your chances of getting the disease.

Tests That Check for Cancer

For some kinds of cancer, tests called screenings may catch it when it's still considered precancerous or before it spreads.

Colon cancer, for example, usually starts with growths in your colon called polyps. If one of these tests spots them, your doctor can often take the polyps out before they turn into cancer or while it's still in the early stages.

Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy procedures use a thin tube with a tiny video camera on the end to look inside your colon and rectum. A colonoscopy lets your doctor see those entire areas. But he can only examine part of the colon with a sigmoidoscopy.

A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) looks for blood in your bowel movement, which could be a sign of a polyp or cancer. But these tests won't find them if they aren't bleeding.

A stool DNA test also looks for blood, but it checks for traces of cells from polyps or tumors with changes in their genes, too. If it finds anything, you'll need to follow up with a colonoscopy.

To check for cervical cancer in women, doctors use an HPV (human papillomavirus) test to look for infections that may lead to the disease and Pap tests to find changes in cells before they turn into cancer or that are in the early stages of cancer.


To lower your chances of getting some kinds of cancer, you could get a shot. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine may prevent cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancer. Getting a hepatitis B vaccine may lower your odds of liver cancer.


Scientists are studying this method to see if it can keep some cancers away. It involves taking a man-made or natural substance.

So far, results suggest that medicines called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), such as tamoxifen and raloxifene, may lower the chance of breast cancer in high-risk women.


Some women with a high risk of breast cancer choose to have one or both breasts removed to prevent it from developing. This is called prophylactic mastectomy.

You could also get a prophylactic oophorectomy that takes out both ovaries and fallopian tubes. Because ovaries make estrogen, a surgery called risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy (rrBSO) could slow the growth of some breast cancers as well as avoid ovarian cancer.

This is something you should talk to your doctor about if you find out you have changes to your BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, or you have a strong family history of these cancers.   

Don't Smoke

If you have a tobacco habit, it's time to quit.

Smoking is clearly linked to lung cancer. It also may raise your chances of getting cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, bladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, cervix, colon, and some kinds of leukemia.

Also, avoid places where you might breathe in the smoke from other people's cigarettes. That also raises your risk.

Stay Out of the Sun

You can slash your odds of skin cancer if you limit your contact with the sun's rays. Follow these tips:

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30-50.
  • Stay in the shade when you're outside.
  • Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs.
  • Pop on a hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoid the sun when it's strongest -- between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Don't use indoor tanning beds.

Keep to a Healthy Weight

"Obesity causes breast and endometrial cancer, so weight control is important," says Alfred Neugut, MD, PhD, co-director of the Cancer Prevention Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital. It's also linked to cancers of the colon and rectum, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas.

If you're overweight, it helps to shed even a few pounds.

Eat Well

Make sure you get plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. They have fiber, which is linked to a lower risk of colon cancer.

Look for foods with beta-carotene, lycopene, and vitamins A, C, and E. They're antioxidants, which may play a role in preventing cancer.

"Limit red meat, especially processed meat. Save bacon for special occasions, if you eat it at all," Hamrick says. Processed meats, like deli meats, hams, and hot dogs, may be linked to colorectal and stomach cancer.

Try not to char your food. You want to cook it enough to kill germs, but frying, broiling, or grilling at high temperatures may bump up your cancer risk. Instead, try braising, steaming, or poaching.

You may have heard that supplements like selenium and vitamin E can cut your risk. But there isn't enough evidence to suggest it's true. Some supplements may even raise your odds.


The more you move, the better. It may lower your chances of getting breast, colon, endometrium, prostate, and other cancers.

Swim, jog, walk, or do anything that gets you moving. If you're starting out, try walking. "It's inexpensive, time-efficient, and can be done with others," Hamrick says.

Aim for 150 minutes or more every week.

Cut back on how much you sit, lie around, and watch TV.

Don't Drink a Lot of Alcohol

It's been linked to mouth, voice box, throat, liver, breast, and colon cancer.

You don't have to avoid it altogether. Think moderation. Stick to one drink a day if you're a woman, two if you're a man.

All these things may lower your risk, but they're not a guarantee. So far, we don't have a 100% way to prevent cancer.

Show Sources


David Cosgrove, MD, Compass Oncology.

James Hamrick, MD, chief of oncology, Kaiser Permanente, Atlanta.

Alfred Neugut, MD, PhD, co-director, Cancer Prevention Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Michael J. Schultz, MD, medical director, The Breast Center, University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

American Cancer Society: "Can ovarian cancer be prevented?" "American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention," "Frequently Asked Questions About Colonoscopy and Sigmoidoscopy," "New Screening Guidelines for Cervical Cancer." "Prophylactic Mastectomy."

CDC: "Colorectal (Colon) Cancer," "Cancer Screening Tests," "Gynecologic Cancers," "How to Prevent Cancer or Find It Early," "Healthy Choices," "What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk of Skin Cancer?" "Secondhand Smoke (SHS) Facts," "Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention."

National Cancer Institute: "Cancer Prevention Overview -- Patient Version (PDQ)," "Surgery to Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer."

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