Is Cancer Really Preventable? Here’s What Doctors Want You to Know

Fitness

“I’m really sick and tired of people getting cancer that shouldn’t be getting cancer,” an oncology nurse, still dressed in her scrubs, says in a TikTok posted in late-March. “I’m going to give you some tips on how to avoid getting cancer.” In the comments, people add their own recommendations, inquiring about specific vitamins, diets, and lifestyle changes.

Cancer is becoming more prevalent in young people, leaving many scrambling to figure out how to avoid it. A 2023 study from the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA specifically notes rising cancer rates in Americans younger than 50, particularly in women. This concerning trend is further emphasized by the publicity surrounding Kate Middleton’s cancer diagnosis, and Olivia Munn’s breast cancer journey. It’s no wonder, then, that cancer prevention content is on the rise, with doctors and influencers alike sharing tips and tricks to help you reduce your risk of getting cancer.

For many of these videos, the intentions are good and some of the information might even be accurate. But this content may have an unforeseen consequence of implying that an individual’s risk of cancer is entirely within their control.

It’s true that various environmental and lifestyle factors can contribute to different types of cancer. And it’s important to know what is in your control, so you can take the steps necessarily to protect your wellbeing. But some videos, shares, or posts can make it seem like preventing cancer is as simple as changing up your diet and sleep routine — and unfortunately, the reality is not quite so straightforward.

“Social media often oversimplifies cancer prevention, sometimes suggesting that specific diets or lifestyle changes can entirely prevent cancer. This is misleading,” says Scott Braunstein, MD, the national medical director at Sollis Health and formerly the national medical director at Cedars-Sinai. “While certain behaviors can reduce risk, they do not guarantee prevention. Additionally, the promotion of unproven methods for prevention can give people a false sense of security.”

Content that overestimates or overstates the amount of control we really have over our lifetime odds of getting cancer can also create a stigmatizing attitude toward people with cancer. “I appreciate this, but sometimes there isn’t anything you can do,” one commenter writes in response to the nurse’s TikTok. “People think that cancer patients should have done something differently too often when that isn’t always the case.”

Here, doctors help break down what really causes cancer, and how much risk is actually preventable.

What Causes Cancer?

“Cancer is basically a result of changes in the cell’s DNA, in the genetic blueprint,” says Deepa Halaharvi, DO, a physician at OhioHealth with over 11 years of experience in breast surgery oncology. “Some of the cancer can be inherited from our parents, others can be caused by outside exposures, referred to as environmental factors,” she says. As many as 10 percent of all cancers are potentially caused by inherited genetic changes, according to The National Cancer Institute.

In addition to inherited genetic changes, other factors play a role in the risk of cancer, some of which you can change, some of which you can’t. Breast cancer, for instance, has several known risk factors, including the age of one’s first period, family history, and breast density. While those factors are out of your hands, others — such as being physically active or avoiding excessive alcohol consumption — are within your control.

Again, one theme that is driving some of the cancer prevention content we see online is the fact that cancer rates are rising among young people. Since that trend is new, some creators seem to imply that it’s happening because of things that can be reversed — maybe young people are eating poorer diets now than ever before, or are spending too much time on their phones and not enough time being active. But the fact is, experts aren’t sure why cancer rates are rising in this group. “The rise in cancer cases among younger individuals could be attributed to a combination of factors, including but not limited to: changes in lifestyle and environment, increased detection through screening, and possibly genetic predispositions being affected by modern exposures,” Dr. Braunstein says. Therefore, more research is needed before concrete prevention recommendations can be made.

Is Cancer Truly Preventable?

This information isn’t meant to sound disempowering — the good news is lifestyle changes can make an impact on cancer risk. “While not all cancers are preventable, a significant number can be mitigated through lifestyle choices and preventive measures,” Dr. Braunstein says. These include tobacco use, body mass index, alcohol consumption, fruit and vegetable intake, and physical activity. Dr. Halaharvi adds that we know more about how actionable changes affect some cancers — like breast cancer — than others — like eye cancer.

But someone getting cancer is never their fault. And although environmental factors play a role in cancer, not everyone has the same amount of control. Someone living in a food desert may have a harder time accessing whole foods like fruits and vegetables. Likewise, a low-income family may not be able to move to an area with less air pollution.

Additionally, Dr. Halaharvi notes that Black people are at higher risk than their white peers for developing certain cancers (including breast, lung, and colorectal cancers). “Racial disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes are well-documented, with research showing that they are driven by a combination of structural, economic, and socioenvironmental inequities that are rooted in racism and discrimination, as well as genetic and hereditary factors that may be influenced by the environment,” reports KFF, a health policy nonprofit. This is exactly the kind of nuance some preventative cancer content may overlook.

“It’s true that adopting healthier behaviors can greatly reduce one’s risk of developing cancer, but it’s also important to recognize that not all cancers are preventable. Genetics and other uncontrollable factors play a significant role in cancer development,” Dr. Braunstein says. “Therefore, while it’s important to live healthily, it’s equally important to speak to your doctor about personal family history, and available preventative testing that may be indicated.” An example is the breast cancer risk assessment score.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer

When it comes to preventing cancer, there are things you can do to help, but you won’t find a quick fix on social media. “It’s not a fad. It should be a lifestyle,” Dr. Halaharvi says.

She recommends starting by eating a balanced diet with plenty of cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, kale, arugula, and cabbage), minimizing alcohol, cutting out smoking, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. The American Cancer Society also suggests limiting sedentary behavior and aiming for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week (or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise). Additionally, Dr. Braunstein emphasizes the importance of sunscreen.

But taking note of any cancers in your family history, and asking your doctor for personalized advice tailored to your own risk levels, is also key, Dr. Braunstein says. If you know you have a higher genetic risk, you should also ask your doctor about what additional preventive screenings may be appropriate. Dr. Halaharvi says tests like mammograms and MRIs can help detect cancer earlier, which may lead to a better prognosis.

Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for POPSUGAR Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group. In her free time, she overshares on the internet, creating content about chronic illness, beauty, and disability.

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