4 Ways Women Can Lower Their Cancer Odds

Cancer prevention guideline adherence lowered cancer risks in women

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Your life has probably been touched by cancer in some way. You’ve known someone who’s had it; maybe you have; or you know of people who’ve died from it. So what can you as a woman do to lower your cancer risks?

A new study found that postmenopausal women who followed the American Cancer Society's (ACS) “Nutrition and Physical Activity Cancer Prevention Guidelines” had significantly lower overall risks of developing or dying from cancer compared to women who didn’t adhere to the recommendations.

Asian, African-American and Hispanic women benefitted most from following the guidelines.

"Eat well and move every day."

Cynthia Thomson, PhD, RD, professor of public health at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and colleagues applied the ACS guidelines to evaluate their association with cancer outcomes in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study (WHI-OS) of postmenopausal women.

“The message is simple and clear: If you want to reduce your risk for cancer, even later in life, eat a healthy diet, be active daily, avoid or limit alcohol, and don’t smoke,” Dr. Thomson said in a statement.

The ACS guidelines encompass four modifiable behaviors:

  1. Maintain a healthy weight throughout life. It’s never too late to reach that goal!
  2. Engage in moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 30 minutes five days a week.
  3. Eat a healthy diet that includes at least five servings of vegetables and fruits, whole grains and limited consumption of red and processed meats.
  4. Limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day, if you drink at all.

Dr. Thomson’s team looked at how well women in the WHI-OS followed these recommendations. That study involved 93,676 women between the ages of 50 and 79 at the time of enrollment. Participants completed detailed questionnaires about their health habits, diet, medical history and demographics (age, ethnicity, etc.). Their weight and height were measured at clinics to determine their BMI (body mass index). The women also reported their height and weight at the age of 18.

The researchers scored each woman according to her adherence to the guidelines. Behaviors that were consistent with the recommendations were scored with a one or two. Behaviors that did not follow the guidelines were scored with a zero. The highest possible score was an eight.

The participants were followed for nearly 8.5 years, and during this period, 8,632 cancers were diagnosed (13 percent of participants) and 2,356 deaths due to cancer were recorded. Most of the cancer-related deaths were the result of invasive breast cancer. A total of 7,106 (10.8 percent) women died from all causes during the follow-up period.

Dr. Thomson and team discovered that compared to women with the lowest scores (zero to two), women with the highest scores (seven or eight) had:

  • 17 percent lower risk of developing any form of cancer
  • 22 percent lower odds of breast cancer
  • 52 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer
  • 27 percent lower chance of dying from any cause
  • 61 percent lower risk of dying from colorectal cancer
  • 33 percent lower risk of breast cancer death

According to the researchers, “Associations with lower cancer incidence and mortality were generally strongest among Asian, black, and Hispanic women and weakest among non-Hispanic whites.”

“Our results suggest that healthy lifestyle behaviors recommended for nutrition and physical activity behavior may be associated with lower risk of cancer and death in postmenopausal women. The lower cancer incidence and all-cause mortality risk showed in Hispanic and black postmenopausal women, in relation to nutrition and physical activity behaviors, warrant further study,” the authors concluded.

"The article is a good reminder that most of the effective cancer prevention recommendations are not controversial: maintain a good body weight, stay active, don't smoke and avoid or  limit alcohol," said Deborah Gordon, MD, an integrative physician at Madrona Homeopathy in Ashland, Oregon.

The nutrition and preventive medicine expert continued, "Another recommendation that shouldn't be controversial is the idea that good balance of excitement and relaxation reduces cancer-promoting stress and the recognition that good social involvement also mitigates risk. So my final word would be, yes, it's a good idea for your health to go for a walk outside in the sun with your friends! " 

This study was published January 7 in Cancer Prevention Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

The WHI program is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institutes of Health; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Review Date: 
January 9, 2014
Last Updated:
January 11, 2014