We're all grown-ups here—nightmares aren't a big problem anymore. We're calm, we're cool, we're mostly collected...until it comes to the C-word. For adults, cancer is the thing that goes bump in the night; that bump gets louder when family or friends are diagnosed. Whether your risk is monumental or blessedly average, we know you want to protect yourself. So we've combed through research, interrogated experts, and found cutting-edge strategies to help keep you safe.
Worship a wee bit of sun
People who get the most vitamin D, which lies dormant in skin until ultraviolet rays activate it, may protect themselves from a variety of cancers, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, breast, and colon. (If you think your vitamin D deficient, look for these 5 signs.) Ironically, it even improves survival rates of melanoma, the most serious skin cancer. But 10 to 15 minutes a few days a week is all it takes to benefit. If you're out any longer than that, slather on the sunscreen. (If you go the supplement route, aim for 400 IU of vitamin D a day.)
Eat an orange every day
It just may zap a strain of the H. pylori bacteria that causes peptic ulcers and can lead to stomach cancer. Researchers in San Francisco found that infected people with high levels of vitamin C in their blood were less likely to test positive for the cancer-causing strain.
Listen to Katie Couric
Though colonoscopies are about as popular as root canals, if you're 50 or older, get one. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Don't think you're off the hook because you got a digital fecal occult blood test at your last checkup: Research by the Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study found that the test missed 95% of the cases. Schedule your first colonoscopy before your 50th if you have a family history of colon cancer.
Steam a little green
Piles of studies have shown that piles of broccoli help stave off ovarian, stomach, lung, bladder, and colorectal cancers. And steaming it for three to four minutes enhances the power of the cancer-fighting compound sulforaphane, which has been shown to halt the growth of breast cancer cells. (Sorry, microwaving doesn't do the trick; it strips out most antioxidants.) Get more protection by sprinkling a handful of selenium-rich sunflower seeds, nuts, or mushrooms on your greens. Researchers are discovering that sulforaphane is about 13 times more potent when combined with the mineral selenium.
Pick a doc with a past
Experience—lots of it—is critical when it comes to accurately reading mammograms. A study from the University of California, San Francisco, found that doctors with at least 25 years' experience were more accurate at interpreting images and less likely to give false positives. Ask about your radiologist's track record. If she is freshly minted or doesn't check a high volume of mammograms, get a second read from someone with more mileage.
Drink jolt-less java
Drink jolt-less java. Downing 2 or more cups of decaf a day may lower the incidence of rectal cancer by 52%, finds a study from two large and long-term research projects—the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study from Harvard University. One theory is that coffee increases bowel movements, which helps to reduce the risk. Why decaf reigns supreme, however, remains a mystery.
Drop 10 pounds
Being overweight or obese accounts for 20% of all cancer deaths among women and 14% among men, notes the American Cancer Society. (You're overweight if your body mass index is between 25 and 29.9; you're obese if it's 30 or more.) Plus, losing excess pounds reduces the body's production of female hormones, which may protect against breast, endometrial, and ovarian cancers. Even if you're not technically overweight, gaining just 10 pounds after the age of 30 increases your risk of developing breast, pancreatic, and cervical, among other cancers.
Make like a monkey
Or a bunny. Women who ate four to six antioxidant-laden bananas a week cut their risk of kidney cancer by 54%, compared with those who didn't eat them at all, found an analysis of 61,000 women at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Gnawing on root vegetables such as carrots had the same benefit.
Get naked with a friend
You'll need help examining every inch of your body—including your back, scalp, and other hard-to-see places—for possible changes in the size or color of moles, blemishes, and freckles. These marks could spell skin cancer. Women, take special note of your legs: Melanoma mainly occurs there. For the guys, the trunk, head, and neck are the most diagnosed spots.
While you're at it, check your fingernails and toenails, too. Gray-black discoloration or a distorted or elevated nail may indicate the disease. And whether you see changes or not, after age 40, everyone should see a dermatologist yearly.
See into the future
Go to Your Disease Risk to assess your chance of developing 12 types of cancer, including ovarian, breast, and colon. After the interactive tool estimates your risk, you'll get personalized tips for prevention.
Pay attention to pain
If you're experiencing a bloated belly, pelvic pain, and an urgent need to urinate, see your doc. These symptoms may signal ovarian cancer, particularly if they're severe and frequent. Women and physicians often ignore these symptoms, and that's the very reason that this disease can be deadly. When caught early, before cancer has spread outside the ovary, the relative 5-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is a jaw-dropping 90 to 95%.
Get calcium daily
Milk's main claim to fame may also help protect your colon. Those who took calcium faithfully for four years had a 36% reduction in the development of new pre-cancerous colon polyps five years after the study had ended, revealed Dartmouth Medical School researchers. (They tracked 822 people who took either 1,200 mg of calcium every day or a placebo.) Though the study was not on milk itself, you can get the same amount of calcium in three 8-ounce glasses of fat-free milk, along with an 8-ounce serving of yogurt or a 2- to 3-ounce serving of low-fat cheese daily.
Sweat 30 minutes a day
One of the best anticancer potions is a half hour of motion at least five days a week. Any kind of physical activity modulates levels of androgens and estrogen, two things that can protect women against estrogen-driven cancers such as ovarian and endometrial, as well as some types of breast cancer. The latest proof comes by way of a Canadian study that found that women who get regular, moderate exercise may lower their risk of ovarian cancer by as much as 30%. Bonus: All that moving might speed everything through your colon, which may help stave off colon cancer.
Stamp out smoking—all around you
Lung cancer is well known as one of the main hazards of smoking. But everything the smoke passes on its way to the lungs can also turn cancerous: mouth, larynx, and esophagus. The fun doesn't stop there. Smokers are encouraging stomach, liver, prostate, colorectal, cervical, and breast cancers as well. The good news: If you give up the cigs today, within 15 years, your lung cancer risk will drop to almost pre-smoking lows. (Need help? Try this healthy app.) Share that news with the people who puff around you, because exposure to someone else's smoke can cause lung cancer, and it may boost your chances of cervical cancer by 40%.
Step away from the white bread
If you eat a lot of things with a high glycemic load—a measurement of how quickly food raises your blood sugar—you may run a higher risk of colorectal cancer than women who eat low-glycemic-load foods, finds a Harvard Medical School study involving 38,000 women. The problem eats are mostly white: white bread, pasta, potatoes, and sugary pastries. The low-glycemic-load stuff comes with fiber.
Have your genes screened
Do you have a strong family history of any kind of cancer or multiple cancers? Talk with your doctor about genetic counseling. For instance, nearly everyone born with familial adenomatous polyposis (the genetic predisposition to colon cancer) develops the disease by age 40 if preventive surgery isn't done. Knowing this early can aid in prevention and early detection.
Request a better breast scan
If you're at high risk of breast cancer—you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation, for example—ask your doctor to pair your routine mammogram with an MRI. One study found that together, the two picked up 94% of tumors; mammography alone detected just 40% and MRI, 77%.
Cooking your food over an open flame is a great way to cut calories. Unfortunately, it can also raise your cancer risk: The grill's high temps can trigger substances in muscle proteins to form cancer-causing compounds called hetero-cyclic amines, or HCAs. But avoiding this potential hazard is easy; simply keep gas jets low or wait until the charcoal turns into glowing embers before you start cooking.
Protect yourself even more by lacing your burgers with rosemary (and perhaps other antioxidant-rich herbs such as basil, oregano, or thyme). This helps reduce the amount of some HCAs in meat, a Kansas State University study found. Also helpful: Microwaving meat ahead of time helps disable HCA formation and cuts down on grilling time.
Keep your house clean
Yet another reason to love your Swiffer: Active postmenopausal women who got most of their exercise from housework cut their risk of breast cancer by 30%, Canadian researchers say.
Let garlic lie
Thanks to this bulbed wonder, you can ward off vampires and stave off cancer. To preserve the potential cancer-fighting power of garlic, chop it up and let it sit a bit. Research suggests that heating garlic can block 90% of the activity of alliinase, the enzyme that helps to form a cancer-fighting compound. Alliinase is activated when the cloves are crushed or cut, but if cut garlic cools its heels for 5 to 10 minutes before heating, enough compounds are formed to survive cooking.
Check for radon
Exposure to this odorless, radioactive gas that's produced by the natural decay of uranium is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the EPA. Test your home to see if you're safe. The National Safety Council's National Radon Hotline (800-767-7236) offers low-cost test kits; they're also available at hardware stores.
Play hot tomato
Red fruits (watermelon, tomato, pink grapefruit) are loaded with lycopene, a substance that has been proven time and time again to be a potent cancer fighter. It seems that heating said fruits makes the lycopene easier for the body to use, which explains why men who eat a lot of ketchup, pizza (it's in the sauce), and spaghetti (ditto) are far less likely to get prostate cancer.
Ditch the wieners
You can smother 'em in all the ketchup you want, but you can't negate a hot dog's negatives. (Take a look at what's actually in hot dogs.) One study of 190,545 people found that eating a wiener daily may boost your risk of pancreatic cancer, which is nearly always fatal, by 67%. Same goes for sausage and other processed meats.
The perfect cancer-fighting salad
Can you spot the cancer fighters at the salad bar? Build yourself some powerful protection with these ingredients.
Start with leafy greens. They contain a hefty amount of the B vitamin folate, which has been shown to reduce one's chances of getting colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers. In one study, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that women who ate the mostly dark greens were among the least likely to get breast cancer. Apparently, folate can halt changes in DNA that trigger runaway cell growth, the main characteristic of cancer.
Add shredded carrot
In a study from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, women who ate just five servings of four raw carrot sticks a week had a 54% decrease in their risk of getting ovarian cancer, compared with women who ate them less than once a month. Carrots may also reduce your risk of kidney cancer.
Serve yourself some tomatoes
If you don't feel like turning up the heat on your tomatoes, you can still get some of their cancer-shielding benefits. German research on 165 colonoscopy patients found that those who had the lowest blood level of lycopene, one of the chemicals that give tomatoes their color, had the highest rate of colorectal adenomas, a precursor to colorectal cancer. Toss a few into your guy's salad
Heap on beans
Women who ate beans at least twice a week were 24% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who ate them less often, report Harvard School of Public Health researchers, who analyzed data from 90,630 people. Legumes may lessen risk of breast cancer, thanks to their ability to suppress the production of enzymes that encourage tumor growth.
Add a little fish
Want to add something hardy to your lunchtime salad? Go wild with salmon. When B6-rich foods (like salmon) are eaten with folate-filled foods (dark leafy greens), they can help reduce the recurrence of colorectal adenomas, a precursor to colorectal cancer, by 39%, a University of Arizona study found. Salmon may also help shield regular eaters from skin cancer, British research found.
Splash on some vinaigrette
Mixing your favorite vinegar with olive oil can also help prevent breast cancer. Scientists from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine found that oleic acid in olive oil dramatically cuts the levels of the cancer gene Her-2/neu, associated with highly aggressive breast tumors with poor prognosis.
Garnish with citrus peel
They're like eating sunscreen, but they taste better. Limonene—a compound that gives oranges, lemons, and limes their scent—is linked to a 34% reduction in skin cancer, finds a University of Arizona study of 400 people.