As promised, here is our second post for National Cancer Prevention Month – in this post we discuss some of the major risk factors for cancer as per the experts.

While it cannot be guaranteed that you will not get cancer if you avoid these, you definitely have a better chance of remaining cancer-free and healthy all round.

Smoking and Tobacco Use

According to the American Cancer Society, smoking tobacco is a major risk factor for cancer and accounts for around 30% of cancer deaths in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7,300 non-smokers die from lung cancer due to second-hand smoke each year.

Tobacco smoke contains at least 70 known chemicals called carcinogens that cause cancer. Smoking cigarettes is the leading risk factor for lung cancer. Smoking can also cause 11 other types of cancer, according to the CDC, including cancers of the mouth and throat, stomach, liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder and colon. Some studies have seen an increased risk of breast cancer in women who smoke.

Cigar smoking, pipe smoking, low-tar cigarettes and menthol cigarettes can increase a person’s risk of lung cancer as much as regular cigarettes. The health benefits of smoking cessation begin soon after quitting, and lung cancer risk is cut in half after 10 years.


Studies have shown that alcohol consumption is associated with many different types of cancers. The more alcohol a person drinks over time, the higher their risk of developing alcohol-associated cancer.

According to a large research review, alcohol is linked to an increased risk of cancers of the mouth and throat, breast, liver and colon, and probably also the stomach and pancreas.

Alcohol acts as an irritant that damages body tissues. When cells try to repair themselves, alcohol leads to DNA changes that can lead to cancer. Alcohol also affects absorption of folate and other nutrients, oestrogen levels and body weight, all of which can contribute to cancer growth.

The American Cancer Society recommends that people who drink should limit the amount of alcohol to no more than two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women. A beer, a glass of wine and a mixed cocktail contain about the same amount of alcohol.

Sun Exposure or Tanning Beds

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds is the major risk factor for skin cancer. People with pale skin are at greatest risk, but darker-skinned people of all ethnicities can still get skin cancer.

Reducing your exposure to the sun – especially during midday when the rays are more intense – is the best way to prevent getting skin cancer. When outdoors, wear long sleeves and pants, a hat with a brim and sunglasses that block UV rays.

Apply sunscreen to exposed skin, including easily overlooked areas like the ears and back of the neck. Sunscreen with a higher sun protection factor, or SPF, offers more protection. An SPF of 15 means you get the same amount of exposure in 15 minutes as you would in one minute without protection.

Look for products with an SPF of at least 15 that block both UV-A and UV-B rays. But remember that even the best sunscreen does not block ultraviolet rays completely.

Diet and Exercise

A healthy diet and regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer. Overweight individuals are at higher risk for at least 13 different types of cancer, including cancers of the breast, thyroid, liver, pancreas, kidneys, uterus, ovaries and colon.

Body size and weight are influenced by genetics, environment and behaviour and can’t be fully controlled. But a healthy diet and exercise are beneficial at any weight.

Stick to a well-balanced diet that is high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains – limit your consumption of red meat, which has been linked to colon cancer – this includes processed or smoked meats.

High doses of vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements have not been shown to prevent cancer, and in some cases they can be harmful.

The benefits of physical activity go beyond weight loss. Individuals who do more physical activity are at lower risk for breast, endometrial, prostate and colon cancer.

Sedentary activity on the other hand – especially sitting for long periods – has been linked to cancer and other health risks, even in those who exercise regularly.

Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (walking, yoga or gardening) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week.

Children and teens should get at least one hour of moderate or vigorous activity each day, and additional activity can provide extra benefits.

Environmental Risk Factors

 Exposure to various chemicals in the environment such as exposure to industrial chemicals in the workplace and exposure to vehicle exhaust in air pollution, can increase cancer risk.

Known carcinogenic substances include asbestos (mineral fibres found in some construction materials), arsenic (present in drinking water in some areas), benzene (present in gasoline fumes and cigarette smoke) and formaldehyde (a preservative and disinfectant).

Radon, an invisible and odourless radioactive gas, is released from radioactive elements naturally found in rocks and soil in some areas, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

Next week we will bring you more information on preventing cancer.

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