Harvard Health Letter

More evidence that a healthy lifestyle might help prevent cancer

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Which puts you at greater risk of getting cancer: your genes or your lifestyle? "Most cancers are not inevitable. Genes are important, but diet and lifestyle are even more important in most cases," says Dr. Ed Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH).

In a study published online May 19, 2016, in JAMA Oncology, Dr. Giovannucci and HSPH Research Fellow Dr. Mingyang Song found that a healthy lifestyle can prevent 40% of cancer cases and 50% of cancer deaths in the United States. The researchers examined the lifestyles of about 136,000 white men and women and found that four healthy habits were associated with preventing lung, colon, breast, pancreatic, and kidney cancer. The habits: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, maintaining a body mass index between 18.5 and 27.5, no smoking, and drinking only in moderation (up to one drink per day for women, two for men).

The study doesn't prove that a healthy lifestyle prevents cancer, and the study considered only white people. But Dr. Giovannucci says each healthy habit already has substantial evidence showing an association with cancer prevention. The takeaway message for all of us: "You can lower cancer risk, and it's never too late to start benefiting from changes," says Dr. Giovannucci.