Cancer Prevention is having a Healthy Immune System, Microbiome, and Lifestyle. Research and Patients explain.

Cancer prevention is not black and white. There is no known cure for cancer because not all cancers are alike, and not all people are alike, which further complicates treatment. However, as individuals, if we are aware of risk factors, preventative lifestyle choices, and understand that our biology impacts cancer development, then maybe the best steps forward to preventing cancer come down to awareness, and continued research.

“We are studying lifestyle; the role of diet, of processed foods, to better understand cancer prevention.”

– Dr. Anton Bilchik

First, What is Cancer?

Cancer is a genetic disease. Changes in cells related to cancer can occur when exposed to chemicals in the environment, such as carcinogens, UV rays from the sun, infections such as the human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis, and more recently, H. Pylori, a bacterium in the gut. Other abnormal changes related to cancer may occur from our genes inherited from our parents, or random mistakes in our DNA. An accumulation of these genetic changes over many years may turn healthy cells into cancerous cells.1,8

Why is Research Imperative to Cancer Prevention?

Cancer incidences are rising globally. According to Lancet, “by 2040, [the global burden of cancer] is expected to increase to around 30 million new cancer cases annually and 16 million deaths from cancer according to the Global Cancer Observation.” Worldwide, cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death, and the leading risk factors for cancer related deaths are behavioral, such as smoking, alcohol overuse, high BMI, and unsafe sex.2,3

How does the Global Cancer Burden Compare to the US Nationally?

It’s not so different. Cancer in the US is the 2nd leading cause of death as well. In 2024, over 2 million new people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States, up by 41,000 new cases from the previous year. The causes of which are smoking, obesity, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, and infections, with HPV and hepatitis responsible for approximately 30 percent of all cancer related cases. That is approximately 600,000 new cases related to infection.4,6,7

Cancers Linked to Alcohol:
  • Mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, breast, and stomach.5
Deaths causally linked to smoking (30 percent of all cancer deaths are related to smoking).
  • Lung, oral cavity, esophageal, bladder, kidney, pancreatic, stomach, cervical and acute myelogenous leukemia.5
Cancers caused by infections such as, HPV, hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Epstein Barr virus, and Helicobacter pylori.
  • Liver cancer, gastric cancer, lymphoma, vaginal cancer, rectal cancer, prostate cancer, and oropharynx cancers.5

“Physical activity is enormously important. It is considered anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is an important part of cancer development.”

– Dr. Anton Bilchik

Why Study Inflammation in Cancer Development?

Infections, alcohol, and smoking are linked to cause inflammation, and more yet, chronic inflammation. “Inflammation is the body’s response to tissue damage, caused by physical injury, insufficient blood supply to an organ, infection, exposure to toxins, or other types of traumas. The body’s inflammatory response to trauma causes cellular changes and an immune response that result in the repair of the damaged tissue and cellular growth at the site of the injured tissue. When these responses become chronic, cell mutation and proliferation can result, often creating an environment conducive to the development of cancer.” 8

Studies show that triggers for chronic inflammation that increase the risk or progression of cancer include infections (H. Pylori, HPV, hepatitis), and certain autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease. A suppressed immune system cannot fight off cancer growth when the body is staving off an infection.8,9

Inflammation is not the only factor that can cause immunosuppression. Our immune systems are governed by the health of the microbiome as well. According to Dr. Anton Bilchik, “The immune system fights the development of cancer cells,” and other diseases. If our microbiome consists of healthy, natural bacteria that aid in our well-being, then, “If your bacterial is imbalanced it can affect the immune system, and thereby suppressing it.”

A weakened immune system caused by inflammation from certain behaviors, stress, hormone imbalance, environmental exposure to toxins, or bacteria, over a period of time according to many expert studies, can create a perfect environment for cancer development.3,8,9

“When your heart rate is up because of stress your cortical goes up and your epinephrine goes up. It suppresses your immune system when this happens.”

– Dr. Anton Bilchik

Paving the way to Cancer Prevention Through Research

Listen to Dr. Anton Bilchik, Chief of General Surgery, Director of Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Research Program, and Professor of Surgical Oncology explain links between lifestyle, the microbiome, and immunosuppression in the prevention of cancer.

Dr. Anton Bilchik Discusses Cancer Prevention

Dr. Anton Bilchik reveals the connection between behavior, lifestyle, and the microbiome.

Preventing Cancer & Helping Your Immune System:

Behavioral changes can have a significant impact on our health. When combined, the effects are not only noticeable, but potentially lifesaving.

  1. Limit smoking
  2. Limit alcohol consumption
  3. Limit processed foods
  4. Increase physical activity
  5. Reduce stressors
  6. Increase fruit and vegetables in your diet
  7. Check your hormone balance with a specialist.
  8. Check for inflammation as part of your regular doctor visits
  9. Don’t give your children anti-biotics unnecessarily
  10. Know your family’s history
  11. Have safe and protected sex

Listen to Our Patients

Cancer survivors express concerns regarding cancer screening, prevention, and treatment.

Hear more from each of the Saint John’s patients featured in this video.
Breast Cancer:

Colon Cancer:

Lung Cancer:


Prostate Cancer:

Stomach Cancer:

What Screening Methods are Available for Cancer?

In addition to each of the cancers having specific guidelines and tests for screening, such as mammograms for breast cancer, PSA for prostate cancer, colonoscopy for colon or rectal cancers, endoscopy for esophageal or throat cancers, and bronchoscopy for lung cancer, here are more generalized tests you can ask from a primary care physician.

Multi-Cancer Early Detection (MCED)

Providence recently announced adopting the Multi-Cancer Early Detection (MCED) testing, now available through your primary care provider. MCED can detect more than 50 types of cancers from a single blood draw.

This initiative was developed by Principal Investigator, Dr. Ora Gordon, based on a multi-centered national trial. Currently, Dr. Gordon is the Executive Director of Saint John’s Cancer Institute and Professor of Genetics.

Inflammatory Tests
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR): a test that measures red blood cell count and can show inflammation activity.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP): a test that measures the protein produced by the liver and determines chronic inflammation.

What answers can novel cancer research provide?

  1. What is the role of bacteria in cancer and heart disease?
  2. What is the relationship between physical activity and inflammation?
  3. Why are younger people getting cancer, and, why its behavior differs than in those who are older?
  4. Can we identify genes in the blood and in tissue samples, which may predict the development of cancer?
  5. Are we able to finding biomarkers in the blood or in the tissue to focus immunotherapy to treat cancer?
  6. Are there better guidelines for screening for cancer?
  7. Can we identify new methods for screening for cancers?
  8. What is the relationship between the immune system and the bacterium?

“If we can detect cancer or precancer in an earlier stage, we have a much better chance of curing people.”

– Dr. Anton Bilchik

Problems with Healthcare Access

We understand the lack of health coverage is strongly associated with financial hardships and can prevent many people from receiving optimal cancer care across the continuum, from preventative to early detection, and treatment. This is why an awareness of cancer-causing behaviors may influence behavioral changes in our communities. This combined with programs that aim to improve disparities in cancer research, screening, and treatment may also prevent cancer cases from rising. Communities of diverse race and ethnicity, as well as people living in rural communities, are frequently underserved by the health care system. Providence, Saint John’s has partnered with other organizations, such as StandUp2Cancer, to help alleviate discrepancies in care for underserved communities.

Transforming biomedical research and medicine into promising new treatments starts here at Saint John’s Cancer Institute.

  1. The Genetics of Cancer – NCI
  2. Preventing cancer: the only way forward – The Lancet
  3. The global burden of cancer attributable to risk factors, 2010–19: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 – The Lancet
  4. Cancer (
  5. Alcohol Use and Cancer | American Cancer Society
  6. Cancer Facts & Figures 2024
  7. Cancer Prevention Overview (PDQ®) – PDQ Cancer Information Summaries – NCBI Bookshelf (
  8. Inflammation and Cancer – PMC (
  9. Does the Immune System Naturally Protect Against Cancer? – PMC (

About the Author

Eleanor Zeri