Top Strategies to Reduce Cancer Risk Through Lifestyle

By Dr. Ellen Conte, ND.


As most people know, cancer is common – in fact two in five Canadians will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.1 The encouraging news is that an estimated 30%-50% of cancers can be prevented.2 February is National Cancer Prevention Month, so let’s talk about the top strategies to reduce your cancer risk.


Get Moving

Physical activity reduces risk of common cancers by 10-20%.3 If you get cancer, physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and death.4 The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends 2.5 hours a week of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity, and muscle strengthening exercises twice a week. Moderate intensity aerobic exercise should increase your heart rate and breathing rate, such that you can talk but not sing.  Common examples are brisk walking, incline walking on a treadmill, jogging, cycling (indoor or outdoor), and swimming. Vigorous exercise makes talking hard. Muscle strengthening exercise can include the use of weights, body weight and calisthenics, or resistance bands. Useful resources to teach you how to strengthen muscles include personal trainers, physiotherapists, and online sources such as


Consider Nutrition

Poor nutrition has been estimated to cause 5% of cancers.5 There is no one best diet for cancer prevention, but there are common themes found among diets that lower cancer risk.6,7

  • Eat lots of plants – Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all which benefit health. A good guideline is to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits, a quarter with whole grains or starches, and the other quarter with protein-rich foods such as fish, poultry, legumes, eggs, and soy.
  • Limit intake of fast and ultra-processed foods – These foods typically have added sugars, salt, fat, are lower in nutrients and fiber, and are hyper-palatable (meaning they are extra tasty and often easier to overeat). Together, consumption of these types of foods can contribute to weight gain, nutrient deficiencies, and increased risk of diseases including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Examples include fast-food, candies, pastries, and chips.
  • Limit intake of red and processed meats – Intake of these foods is linked with higher rates of colon cancer. Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb, and processed meats include deli meats, pepperoni, hot dogs, bacon, and some sausages. Ideally, limit red meat to no more than 12oz a week (about 2-3 small to moderate portions), and little to no processed meat.
  • Limit intake of added sugars – In particular, sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda pop, flavored coffee drinks, and fruit juices are problematic. The World Health Organization recommends limiting intake of added sugars to no more than 5% of calories (or 6 tsp for a 2,000 calorie/day diet) for optimal health.8 For context, a 12oz Coca Cola has 10 tsp sugar.
  • Don’t over-consume – Eating more calories than your body requires will lead to excess fat gain which is a risk factor for cancer. Working with a healthcare provider such as naturopathic doctor or dietitian can be helpful.

Limit intake of alcohol

Alcohol increases the risk of several types of cancer including cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, liver, mouth and throat, esophagus, and larynx.9 Low risk drinking is two or fewer drinks per week, although any reduction is beneficial.  Keep in mind that one drink is 5oz wine, 12oz beer, or 1.5oz distilled spirits. To help you reduce your intake, try other drinks such as sparkling water, kombucha, non-alcoholic beer, or mocktails.

If you smoke, quit.

This probably isn’t news, but smoking causes 15 different cancer types, accounting for 20% of all cancers, and 30% of cancer deaths.10 Resources to help you quit are available through the Canadian Cancer Society and the Government of Canada. Speak with a healthcare provider to discuss what smoking cessation tools may be best for you.

Practice sun safety

Skin cancers are the most common forms of cancer in Canada, with melanoma being the most aggressive. An estimated 9 out of 10 cases of melanoma can be prevented with proper sun protection.11 To protect yourself, limit time in the sun between 11am-3pm, wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen, wear protective clothing including hats, and seek out shade when possible. The Environmental Working Group has a guide to sunscreens which is useful for finding low toxicity skincare products.

Get enough Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is common in Canada. The impact of vitamin D supplementation on cancer risk is somewhat mixed, but it seems that daily vitamin D3 supplementation likely has a modest effect on lowering cancer risk, but a clearer benefit for decreasing cancer death.12,13 As a low-cost and low-risk intervention, it is a sensible choice to supplement. Speak with your healthcare provider about an appropriate dose ideally based on blood testing.

Manage body weight and blood sugar levels

If you are overweight or have obesity, prediabetes, or diabetes, aim to adequately manage these. Both obesity and diabetes are associated with increased risk of developing cancer.14,15 The exercise and nutrition strategies discussed above are a great start, as well as working with your healthcare providers.

In summary, although not all cancers can be prevented through lifestyle, many can. Living a healthy lifestyle will also improve the quality of your life, decrease your risk of other chronic conditions, and enhance your ability to tolerate cancer treatment if needed.


Author: Dr. Ellen Conte, ND

Dr. Ellen Conte is a naturopathic doctor and clinical researcher with a focus in integrative cancer care. In addition to her clinical practice at Halifax Naturopathic, Ellen is an associate researcher with the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and the Patterson Institute for Integrative Oncology Research where she studies the effects of a complementary and integrative approach to cancer care.





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