Cancer. It’s a scary thought, but like many diseases, it can be prevented. Doctors tell us that you can significantly reduce your risk if you adopt a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. This is called preventive oncology.

Dr Mitchell Gaynor, founder and president of Gaynor Interactive Oncology in New York, is a pioneer of the movement. Every week, hundreds of patients visit him to get advice on how to minimise their cancer risk or stop it from coming back. About 25 per cent of them have never had cancer and believe they can prevent it.

Although the trend is still new in Singapore, cancer prevention isn’t. “We know that certain lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors can increase our risk of developing certain types of cancer, so we try to educate our patients,” says Dr Lo Soo Kien, consultant medical oncologist at Harley Street Clinic, at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital. Here’s what you can do to cut your risk of getting cancer.

Dr Gaynor, who has a special interest in nutrition, says that most of the extensive studies about nutrition and cancer prevention show that these foods can lower the risk of cancer.

• ROSEMARY AND TURMERIC shut down the enzymes that promote breast cancer, as well as allow breast cancer cells to regain the ability to die normally, Dr Gaynor explains.

• GREEN TEA contains polyphenols that reduce inflammation, which is linked to cancer risk, in the body.

• OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS, found in cold deep-water fish like salmon, have anti-inflammatory properties and fend off cancer by “turning off” the enzymes that promote it, while supporting your immune system.

• GARLIC has certain compounds that cause cancer cells to die naturally. Its immune-boosting properties may also reduce cancer growth.

• YOGURT AND FERMENTED MILK DRINKS. Don’t miss out on probiotic-rich foods like these, says associate professor Lee Yuan Kun from the Department of Microbiology at the National University of Singapore. Probiotics, a type of good bacteria, help suppress the growth of cancer-causing bacteria in the intestines, as well as get rid of them.

A vegan diet – where you eat no meat, dairy or eggs – can help too. A recent study done by Loma Linda University in the US found that a vegan diet reduces your cancer risk by lowering levels of
a hormone (IGF-1) that promotes cancer growth. In the study, women on a vegan diet had 34 per cent lower rates of breast, cervical and ovarian cancers, compared with healthy omnivores and vegetarians. You don’t
have to give up meat forever, but it could help to eat more veggies and fruit (five or more servings a day), and commit to vegan-only meals a few times a week.

Regular exercise can help prevent breast cancer by lowering oestrogen levels in the body. It can reduce your risk of uterine cancer too, adds Dr Lo. Working out also speeds up the rate at which your intestines get rid of waste, which lowers your risk of colon cancer.

Dr Gaynor recommends at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise and 20 minutes of weight- bearing exercise a day, three times a week. “These amounts are associated with decreased cancer risk and an improvement in parts of the immune system needed to prevent cancer,” he explains. A bonus: Weight-bearing exercises help strengthen the bones, reducing your risk of osteoporosis too. But balance is key – over-exercising weakens the immune system.

Missing out on a good night’s sleep once in a while won’t harm you in the long run, but consistently not sleeping enough is bad for your health. Sleep deprivation weakens your immune system, making it lose its ability to find and destroy cancer cells, and repair cell damage. When you get enough sleep, your immune cells increase, boosting your cancer- fighting potential.

How much sleep do you need a night to reduce your cancer risk? The answer: Probably less than you think. Dr See Hui Ti, senior consultant of Medical Oncology at Parkway Cancer Centre, says: “It’s not true that everyone needs eight hours every night. What’s important is to have four hours of deep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.”

It’s quality – not long – sleep that counts, explains Dr See. “Most people take about one hour to fall asleep, then get four hours of REM sleep, followed by one hour of slow waking. So six hours would be enough.” Sleep also produces melatonin, a hormone thought to have antioxidant properties that prevent cell damage.

Vaccines & Screenings
Many experts agree that vaccines and screenings are useful in preventing cancer.
Dr Wong Nan Soon, a specialist  in Medical Oncology at Oncocare Cancer Centre Singapore, recommends getting the hepatitis B vaccine to prevent liver cancer, as well as a colonoscopy, which screens for polyps in the colon. If found, the polyps can be removed before they turn cancerous.

You can also see an oncologist to get a clinical evaluation of your breast cancer risk. The doctor will look at your current age, age of first menses, age of your first live birth, the number of relatives with breast cancer, your history of breast biopsies and if there are any abnormal ones, as well as ethnicity.

In general, the younger you start having your periods, the later you give birth to your first child, and the stronger your family history of the disease, the higher your risk of breast cancer.

If your doctor determines that you have a high risk of developing breast cancer, he can recommend you take preventive drugs like Tamoxifen and Exemestane (for post-menopausal women) for it, says Dr Wong.

You should also speak to your doctor about the HPV vaccine, which targets the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer. Dr Lo explains that the vaccine prevents women from contracting HPV, and thus reduces their risk of developing cervical cancer. It’s approved for use in women aged nine to 26, although Dr Lo adds that there may be a protective effect even up to age 45 – so speak to your doctor about it.

However, it’s important to remember that the HPV vaccine is not a replacement for routine pap smears. “Regular cervical smear screening tests are still recommended to detect early changes in the cervix, which could lead to cervical cancer,” Dr Lo adds.

This article was originally published in Simply Her July 2013.