A leading oncologist recommends ways to prevent cancer in your 20s

Here’s your first step.
Here’s your first step.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Munoz
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This question originally appeared on Quora: I’m 20 years old. What decisions can I make over the next 20 years to avoid cancer? Answer by William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

You are very wise to think ahead. The most important thing you can do, of course, is to avoid use of tobacco in any form. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the US for both men and women, and people who smoke are 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who don’t. Tobacco use is also associated with increased risk of 18 different cancers, including cancer of the larynx, bladder, cervix, stomach, and colon.

Leading an otherwise healthy lifestyle also reduces your cancer risk. That includes controlling your weight (be as lean as possible without becoming underweight); getting exercise (at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity), minimizing consumption of alcohol, and limiting consumption of foods high in fat or added sugars (because these contribute to weight gain), among others. It’s believed that maintaining a healthy lifestyle reduces the incidence of cancer by 10 to 15% and mortality from cancer by 20 to 25%.

Other important precautions include avoiding excessive exposure to the sun, which can cause skin cancer, including melanoma, which can be fatal. And stay out of tanning beds! According to the American Academy of Dermatology, people who use indoor tanning are 59% more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never done it.

You should have an annual checkup with a physician and follow his or her recommendations for age-appropriate screening. You should also know your family history of cancer and share that with your physician. For example, a woman with a family history of breast cancer, especially certain kinds, has a higher risk of developing breast cancer herself. Regular screening is even more important in those cases.

Both men and women should also check with their doctors to make sure they have been vaccinated for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical and other cancers, and hepatitis B (HBV), the cause of most liver cancers.

Not all cancers can be avoided, not by any means.  But common-sense precautions can help significantly reduce your chances of developing cancer.

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