What You Can Do to Prevent Cancer from Ages 10 to 80

Diane Mapes Fact Checked
Collage of different organs
© CACTUS Creative Studio / Getty Images

Good health habits aren’t just for January — they’re for every day. And the earlier you start leaning into them, the better off you’ll be by the time you get to the late December of your life.  

Where to start, though? Rummaging in the closet for your tennis racket or running shoes is a great place to begin (exercise is medicine, after all), but there are plenty of other behaviors that can help you stay healthy and happy for decades to come.

One of the simplest is making sure you’re getting regular cancer screenings. 

Reducing your risk of cancer: A decade-by-decade guide 

We’ve compiled guidelines for those cancers that can be caught early via screening or scans, breaking it all down decade by decade so you can see when you need to start thinking about testing for breast, cervical, colorectal, lung or prostate cancers and when you can stop. 

Several national organizations produce cancer screening recommendations, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center’s researchers often serve on their screening committees. We’ve cited guidelines from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Guidelines for these two organizations are updated every few years (some guidelines cited here are mid-update). 

Of course, cancer prevention is more than just early detection through scans and screenings. So, we’ve also folded in additional information on what you can do, decade by decade, to continue to live your healthiest life. The following list is by no means complete, but it should keep you on the right track. Following these steps might even help you avoid other common chronic diseases. 

“Many of the steps you can take to reduce your risk of cancer have the added benefit of helping to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and possibly even dementia,” says Garnet Anderson, senior vice president and director of Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division. “There are plenty of reasons to make these changes.” 

Ages 10 to 20: Cancer prevention for the far future 

It’s not always possible to prevent cancer, but the sooner you can start incorporating healthy behaviors into your life, the better your chances are of sidestepping cancer later down the line. Starting early absolutely gives you a leg up. 

Get vaccinated  

Numerous cancers — cervical, anal, penile, vulvar, throat, mouth and others — are preventable by vaccinating against human papillomavirus, or HPV. Most human beings are infected with HPV during their life, and, per the World Health Organization (WHO), around 625,600 women and nearly 70,000 men are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer each year. Vaccination prevents 90% of these cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all children complete HPV vaccination by age 11 or 12 (they can start as early as age 9).

Don’t smoke  

Highly addictive commercial tobacco products have been linked to numerous cancers (not just lung), and if you don’t start or are able to quit, you’ll lower your risk for 12 cancers and glean numerous other health benefits. Vaping, too, holds risk; ditto for chewing tobacco. Already smoking, chewing or vaping? Fred Hutch’s Jonathan Bricker has developed a suite of smartphone apps to help overcome nicotine cravings. His team’s QuitBot app is free to the public. 

Avoid tanning 

It may feel glorious to soak up the sun, but indulging too much when you’re young bumps your skin cancer risk. Cover up and use sunscreen — especially in these tender years — to cut that risk. Melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, is caused by UV exposure via the sun or tanning beds, and it’s strongly linked to childhood sunburn. “In the Northwest, we often forget about sun protection,” says public health researcher Marian Neuhouser, who leads the Cancer Prevention Program at Fred Hutch. “Wear a hat and use sun protection when outdoors, whether walking, hiking, skiing, snowboarding or gardening.” Neither the USPSTF nor the ACS has screening recommendations for skin cancer, but many doctors recommend checking your skin regularly for any new or changing growths, spots or bumps.

Gather your family’s health history  

Another way to proactively reduce your risk of cancer is to know your family health history. The CDC recommends collecting a family history of cancer and sharing it with your doctor. Those with a family history of breast, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate or other cancers may have a genetic mutation such as BRCA1/2, ATM, TP53, or PALB2 that puts them at higher risk. If that’s you, talk to your doctor about genetic testing and counseling and whether you might need early cancer screenings. More information on inherited cancers is available from the National Cancer Institute, the ACS and the USPSTF. Still have questions? Contact Fred Hutch’s Clinical Genetics and Genetic Counseling Service

Get screened  

If you are at risk for inherited cancer, you may need to start screening for cancer even at a young age. There are no national recommendations for breast, lung or prostate cancer screening for those under 40, but the ACS does mention people at high risk for inherited colorectal cancer may need to undergo colonoscopy screening as early as their teenage years. 

Watch the alcohol  

Yes, these are the high school and college years. But groups like the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify alcohol as a potent carcinogen, linked to oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, liver, colorectal and breast cancers. The WHO has also stated there is “no safe amount of alcohol consumption” when it comes to cancer. News everybody can use, no matter your age. 

Be active  

“Exercise is the one reliable thing people can do to decrease cancer risk,” says Fred Hutch epidemiologist and internist Dr. Anne McTiernan, who studies the health benefits of exercise. And the NCI agrees, emphasizing that there’s “strong evidence that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risk of several types of cancer.” Even kids, McTiernan says, should be active at least one hour a day, whether in school, sports or family activities. Adults need exercise, too! Read on for exercise recommendations as you age. 

Ages 20 to 30: Building a foundation for good health 

All of the above tips apply to this age group. And since these are the years when many people have small children, you may want to pay special attention to both your good and bad behaviors since they will definitely influence the actions of your little ones.    

Quit for your kids 

Research by smoking cessation expert Bricker on children whose parents quit smoking when the kids were young found those kids were much less likely to smoke by high school. If both parents quit, the child’s odds of becoming a smoker dropped by 40%. 

Lean towards green  

If you’re hoping for a long, healthy life, lean towards a plant-based diet. When you choose more plant sources than meat or dairy sources, you benefit from phytonutrients, which have natural cancer-preventive and anti-inflammatory properties. “This helps promote immune function and helps promote cellular repair,” says Heather Greenlee, medical director of Fred Hutch’s Integrative Medicine Program. Plants are also loaded with fiber — good for both our digestive tract and our gut microbiome, which supports our immune system; cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, radishes and Brussels sprouts actively fight cancer. Learn more about healthy eating at Fred Hutch’s Cook for Your Life.

Think “weight management”  

Being overweight or obese increases the risk for 13 different cancers, thanks to increased inflammation, higher levels of insulin and the additional estrogen in fat tissue, among other reasons. The CDC classifies overweight as having a BMI from 25.0 to 29.9; obesity is classified as a BMI of 30.0 or higher. Unsure how to start eating better? U.S. News & World Report just ranked their top diets, which include the Mediterranean and the heart-healthy DASH diet. McTiernan and Neuhouser also recommend the Diabetes Prevention Program diet, which was designed and tested in diverse populations, has been shown to work well for weight loss (with exercise) and may be more affordable.

Be mindful of what you eat  

Neuhouser says, “Whenever possible, cook meals from ingredients instead of eating pre-made or packaged foods. Also, make meals colorful.” She also recommends limiting extra sugar from sugar-sweetened beverages, breakfast cereals and desserts. Neuhouser — along with many national and international organizations — also recommends limiting red and processed meat such as hot dogs, sausage, cold cuts and, yes, even bacon. 

Get screened  

Again, the ACS and USPSTF have no recommendations for breast, lung or prostate cancer screening for average-risk people under 40; however, there are recommendations for cervical cancer screening. ACS recommends that people receive an HPV test every five years, starting at age 25. USPSTF recommends a Pap smear every three years for those ages 21 to 29. Unvaccinated for HPV? Talk with your doctor. Cancer in your family? Genetic mutation found? Your screenings may start earlier. 

Stay active  

Again, this is key for good health throughout your life. “Adults should strive for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate level activity or greater,” McTiernan says. But there’s no need to be an all-out athlete. “People can reduce cancer risk with ordinary movement like walking,” she says. “Being active helps stave off weight gain over the years — it’s not a miracle for weight loss, but it helps. Exercise also reduces risk for several types of cancer, including the most common ones like breast and colorectal cancers.”  

Get those ZZZZZs  

“We have much more control over our sleep than we do family history of cancer,” says Fred Hutch public health researcher Amanda Phipps. “Research generally suggests the more attention we give to sleep as an important aspect of overall health, the better.” Research by Fred Hutch also links good sleep with better outcomes in some cancer patients. Don’t scrimp on sleep! 

Ages 30 to 40: Staying the course into adulthood 

Not smoking, watching your weight and regular exercise are all advised for those in their 30s, as well, along with watching alcohol intake, not sitting for hours on end and making sure you know your family’s history of cancer so you’re getting any necessary (early) screenings. You may also want to pay special attention to your mental health during these stressful career-building years. 

Watch the stress  

Exercise, of course, is a great way to destress (and improve your mood!); even better, it helps keep cancer at bay. Research also shows spending time in green spaces (such as forests, parks, grasslands and recreational areas) as well as blue spaces (rivers, oceans and lakes) improves our overall health and well-being. Nature can be an important resource for those dealing with cancer, as well. 

Keep moving that body  

ACS advises adults to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (or a combo of both) per week. And feel free to go overboard. More is better when it comes to being active. Exercise is especially important if you’re trying to counteract sedentary behavior, like sitting at a desk all day. 

Know your risks  

ACS keeps an ongoing list of known and probable human carcinogens, but they’re quick to note carcinogens alone don’t cause cancer all the time, in all circumstances. Sometimes, your genetic makeup coupled with an exposure — say, smoking or heavy drinking — creates a cancer. If you live in an area with a lot of air pollution (or seasonal wildfire smoke), consider getting an air purifier. Also of note are chemicals used in beauty products. The FDA, for instance, has proposed a ban on formaldehyde in hair relaxers and other hair products used by many Black women.  

Get screened  

ACS and USPSTF have no recommendations for breast, lung, or prostate cancer screening for average-risk people under 40, but ACS recommends cervical cancer screening via an HPV test every five years for those ages 25 to 65. USPSTF recommends a Pap smear every three years or an HPV test (or both) every five years for people ages 30 to 65. As for colorectal cancer screening, if you’re at higher risk, you may need screenings earlier. Please note that colorectal cancer rates are increasing in young people, so definitely know your family history and don’t dismiss changes in your health or bowel habits. Cancer in your family? Genetic mutation found? Your screenings may start earlier.

Ages 40 to 55: Maintaining through middle age 

Our risk for cancer increases as we get older — cancer is a disease of aging, after all — so it makes sense that screening guidelines become much more nuanced as we age.  

Keep up with these screenings  

More importantly, make sure you follow up with your providers if necessary. 

  • Breast cancer: According to the ACS, average-risk folks should start getting regular annual mammograms at age 45, but they should have the opportunity to begin annual screening at age 40. The USPSTF recommends mammograms every other year from ages 40 to 74. 
  • Cervical cancer: The ACS recommends an HPV test every five years from ages 25 to 65. The USPSTF recommends a Pap smear every three years or an HPV test (or both) every five years for people 30 to 65. 
  • Colorectal cancer: The ACS recommends that average-risk folks start screening yearly with an at-home FIT kit or every ten years with a colonoscopy from ages 45 to 75. Those at higher risk should receive colonoscopies every 1 to 3 years. The USPSTF recommends screening for all adults ages 50 to 75 (annually with a FIT kit and every ten years for colonoscopy).
  • Lung cancer: Neither ACS nor USPSTF recommends screening for people under 50. Over 50? Check the recommendations in the next section. 
  • Prostate cancer: Those at the very highest risk should ask about screening at age 40, per ACS; African American men and others at risk should ask at age 45. Average-risk men should ask their doctor about screening at 50. USPSTF offers no prostate screening recommendations until age 55. 

As always, those at high risk due to family history or a known genetic mutation may start cancer screenings much earlier. 

Know your risks  

Again, it’s important to keep additional cancer risks in mind, from air pollution and its particulate matter (get an air purifier!) to a diet full of unhealthy fried food (eat more whole grains and veggies!) to chemicals that may influence your body in different ways. Menopause is happening for many women in this age group. If symptoms are overwhelming, hash out the risks and benefits of hormone therapy with your doctor. Keep active (including strength training), stay social, don’t smoke and talk to your doctor about what else you can do.  

Ages 55 to 70: Healthy investments pay off 

You know the drill by now. Move more, eat less. Get your sleep and destress with walks, social time with friends and family, and hobbies and creative pursuits. Follow up on any weird symptoms (or abnormal tests/scans). And don’t ignore your gut. If something seems amiss, talk to your doctor about it. While you’re there, maybe get a bone scan. And a shingles shot! 

Screening for cancer remains key  

Ditto for those follow-up appointments, if recommended. 

  • Breast cancer: The ACS recommends that women over 55 get mammograms every other year or yearly, depending on preference; the USPSTF recommends that women get mammograms every other year from ages 40 to 74. 
  • Cervical cancer: ACS recommends an HPV test every five years from ages 25 to 65. After 65, it’s unnecessary for low-risk individuals. USPSTF recommends a Pap smear every three years or an HPV test (or both) every five years for people ages 30 to 65. 
  • Colorectal cancer: ACS recommends those at average risk get screened yearly with a FIT kit or every ten years with a colonoscopy until age 75. Higher-risk individuals should get colonoscopies every 1 to 3 years. USPSTF recommends colorectal screening for all adults ages 50 to 75 years — annually with a FIT kit and every ten years for colonoscopy. 
  • Lung cancer: ACS and USPSTF both recommend people ages 50 to 80 who smoke or used to smoke at least a pack a day for 20 years (or two packs a day for ten years) receive a yearly low-dose CT scan to look for lung cancer. 
  • Prostate cancer: Men with the highest risk should ask about screening at age 40, per ACS; African American men and those at higher risk should ask at age 45. Average-risk men should ask about screening at age 50. The USPSTF recommends men up to age 69 talk over the harms and benefits of screening with their doctor and undergo PSA testing based on individual preference.

Ages 70 to 80 and beyond: Keep going through the home stretch 

How’s your hearing? Your eyesight? Your mobility? Do you still have a strong circle of friends? Are you up to date on all your vaccinations? Staying active, spending quality time away from screens, adequate sleep, and a focus on real ingredients (as opposed to calorie-rich and processed foods) will all continue to serve you well in your 70s, 80s, and beyond. Your cancer screenings may be reduced during this time, so talking to your doctor about concerning symptoms is crucial.  

Healthy? Keep getting screened 

  • Breast cancer: ACS recommends mammograms every other year or yearly, depending on preference and general health; the USPSTF recommends women get mammograms every other year until age 74. 
  • Cervical cancer: No screening is recommended after age 65 by ACS or USPSTF for low-risk individuals. 
  • Colorectal cancer: ACS recommends that average-risk folks continue to get screened yearly via FIT kit or every ten years via colonoscopy until age 75. After that, it’s based on life expectancy, history and overall health. After age 85, ACS does not recommend screening. Higher risk individual? Check with your doctor about screening recommendations. USPSTF recommends “selective” screening for colorectal cancer in adults ages 76 to 85 years, as needed. 
  • Lung cancer: ACS and USPSTF both recommend people ages 50 to 80 who smoke or used to smoke at least a pack a day for 20 years (or two packs a day for 10 years) receive a yearly low-dose CT scan to look for lung cancer. 
  • Prostate cancer: ACS does not recommend men without symptoms who have less than a 10-year life expectancy get screening because they aren’t likely to benefit from it. Overall health status, and not age alone, is important when making decisions about screening. USPSTF recommends against PSA-based screening for prostate cancer in men 70 years and older. Fred Hutch biostatistician Ruth Etzioni, who serves on the screening guidelines committee for the American Urological Association, says their guidelines recommend a more “flexible” approach to screening discontinuation based on shared decision-making between patient and doctor.

This article was originally published on January 25, 2024 by the Fred Hutch News Service. It’s been lightly edited for length and style.