Lifestyle Interventions in the Prevention and Treatment of Cancer

Clarence H. Brown III, MD; Said M. Baidas, MD; Julio J. Hajdenberg, MD; Omar R. Kayaleh, MD; Gregory K. Pennock, MD; Nikita C. Shah, MD; Jennifer E. Tseng, MD


Am J Lifestyle Med. 2009;3(5):337-348. 

In This Article


The main aim of the fight against cancer is to decrease mortality from the disease. This can be achieved by better treatments or by decreasing the incidence of cancer. Treatment of cancer has reached new horizons over the past 2 decades, resulting in a cure of several types of cancer, an increase in survival of patients living with cancer, and an improvement in quality of life. A universal cure for all types of cancer is still not in the foreseeable future.

Decreasing the incidence of cancer can be achieved by modulating the known causes of cancer. In this regard, changes in lifestyle—for example, adhering to a healthy diet, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation—can decrease the incidence of cancer.

Yet another way of controlling one's lifestyle that can lead to a decrease in the incidence of cancer is by following medical recommendations related to screening for cancer. That includes screening for breast cancer with mammograms, for cervical cancer with Papanicolaou smears, for prostate cancer with digital rectal examination and serum PSA, and for colon cancer with colonoscopies.[148] Screening can lead to early detection of cancer or precancerous lesions. This is important because early detection of cancer can lead to early medical intervention and a higher chance of cure. The detection of precancerous lesions can help in preventing the development of cancer by removing these lesions or by starting the affected individual on chemoprevention medications. There is clear evidence that if a breast precancerous lesion is detected, the use of chemoprevention medications may reduce the chance of breast cancer developing in that individual.[149,150]

Know your genes. Our lifestyle has to accommodate our genes. Over the past decade, many inherited gene mutations that may predispose one to cancer have been discovered. Testing for carrier status of susceptibility genes for breast and colon cancers is commercially available.[151] Those tested and found to be carriers should focus their lifestyle around their susceptibility to that certain cancer and should seek counseling with regular physician visits and appropriate screening. Additional considerations for such an individual may include chemoprevention and an awareness of the impact of inherited genes on their personal family planning. The US Congress recently passed the GINA law (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act), which protects an individual carrier of an identified genetic mutation from work and insurance discrimination.[152] It is hoped that this legislation will result in a wider use of genetic testing for individuals with a strong family history of cancer.

Although the molecular basis for most cancers is now well known, the inciting process for many has yet to be defined. However, what is clear is that certain controllable human behaviors often may be the trigger mechanism, and changes in lifestyle may be one's best protection from becoming another victim of some very preventable diseases.


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