Understanding Cancer Risk
These interactive tools help identify ways to improve health and understand risk of diseases such as cancer.
This information is meant to provide a general description of cancer risk factors and prevention. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice from your health care provider. Be sure to discuss any questions about your risk of cancer with your health care provider. The source for this information is the National Cancer Institute.
Anything that increases the risk of developing cancer is called a risk factor:
- Growing Older
- Poor Diet/Being Obese
- Certain Viruses
- Exposure to Certain Chemicals
- Radiation Exposure
- Sun Exposure and Tanning Beds
- Inherited Genetic Changes
- Alcohol Use
Smoking: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women in the United States, with 90% of lung cancer deaths among men and approximately 80% of lung cancer deaths among women attributed to smoking. Smoking also increases the risk of cancers of the throat, mouth, pancreas, kidney, bladder, and cervix. Learn more about quitting tobacco use.
Poor diet/being obese: People who have a poor diet, do not have enough physical activity, or are overweight may have a higher risk of several types of cancer. For example, studies suggest that people whose diet is high in fat have a higher risk of cancers of the colon, uterus, and prostate. Lack of physical activity and being obese are risk factors for cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, and uterus.
- Human papillomaviruses (HPVs): HPV infection is the main cause of cervical cancer. It also may be a risk factor for other types of cancer.
- Hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses: Liver cancer can develop after many years of infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
- Human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus (HTLV-1): Infection with HTLV-1 increases a person's risk of lymphoma and leukemia.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People who have HIV infection are at greater risk of cancer, such as lymphoma and a rare cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma.
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV): Infection with EBV has been linked to a higher risk of lymphoma.
- Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV8): This virus is a risk factor for Kaposi's sarcoma.
- Helicobacter pylori: This group of bacteria can cause stomach ulcers. It also can cause stomach cancer and lymphoma in the stomach lining.
Exposure to certain chemicals: People who have certain jobs (such as painters, construction workers, and those in the chemical industry) have a higher risk of cancer. Many studies have shown that exposure to asbestos, benzene, benzidine, cadmium, nickel, or vinyl chloride in the workplace can cause cancer.
Radiation exposure: Ionizing radiation can cause cell damage that leads to cancer. This kind of radiation comes from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, radioactive fallout, radon gas, and some medical procedures.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation comes from the sun, sunlamps, and tanning booths. It causes early aging of the skin and skin damage that can lead to skin cancer.
Radioactive fallout can come from accidents at nuclear power plants or from the production, testing, or use of atomic weapons. People exposed to fallout may have a higher risk of cancer, especially leukemia and cancers of the thyroid, breast, lung, and stomach.
Radon is a radioactive gas that you cannot see, smell, or taste. It forms in soil and rocks. People who work in mines may be exposed to radon. In some parts of the country, radon is found in houses. People exposed to radon are at higher risk of lung cancer.
Some medical procedures are a source of radiation:
- Doctors use radiation (low-dose X-rays) to take pictures of the inside of the body. These pictures help to diagnose broken bones and other problems.
- Doctors use radiation therapy (high-dose radiation from large machines or from radioactive substances) to treat cancer.
Inherited genetic changes: Hereditary risk factors come from changes in genetic material. Some of these genetic changes are passed from parent to child. The Family Cancer Assessment Clinic can help answer questions and identify those who may have a higher risk of cancer due to inherited genetic changes.
Alcohol use: Having more than two drinks each day for many years may increase the chance of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver, and breast. The risk gets higher with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks. For most of these cancers, the risk is higher for a drinker who uses tobacco.
Certain things can help a person reduce his or her risk of cancer, or can actually prevent it:
- Be sure to get recommended vaccinations.
- Tell the doctor if someone in the family has had cancer. This can help find a possible inherited risk of disease, which may change a person's cancer screening recommendations.
- Do not smoke cigarettes or use smokeless or dissolvable tobacco.
- Limit time in the sun, especially during the day when the sun's rays are strongest. Use a sunblock with SPF 30 or higher, containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
- Try to eat a plant-based diet full of colorful vegetables and fruits, grains, and legumes. Talk to the doctor or dietitian before taking dietary supplements.
- Cut down on salty and high-fat foods such as butter, fried foods, fast food, and rich desserts.
- Use condoms or abstain from intercourse and oral sex. Doing this can prevent infection of human papillomaviruses that can cause cervical cancer and may make the risk higher for other types of cancer.
- Handle harmful chemicals and fibers only when wearing protective clothing.
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Try to get 30 minutes to one hour of exercise every day.
- Use alcohol only in moderation. Limit alcohol intake to one or two drinks per day, if any.
- Limit red meat intake and avoid smoked, processed, or salt-cured meats. Bake, broil, or roast lean cuts of meat such as skinless poultry and fish.
Preventive surgeries are usually done based on a person's inherited risk of cancer. Preventive surgeries remove a certain area of the body that will likely develop cancer. An example of a preventive surgery is a prophylactic mastectomy, which is surgery to remove the breasts before breast cancer develops in women, often those who have a change in a BRCA gene.
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