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Cancer Risk Factors

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Introduction - Basal Cell Cancer - Bladder Cancer - Breast Cancer - Cervical Cancer - Colorectal Cancer - Endometrial Cancer - Esophageal Cancer - Hodgkin's Lymphoma - Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma - Leukemia - Lung Cancer - Ovarian Cancer - Pancreatic Cancer - Prostate Cancer - Testicular Cancer - References



Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States today, exceeded only by heart disease. In the year 2000, about 552,200 Americans are expected to die of some form of cancer. That is equivalent to over 1,500 cancer-related deaths per day or 1 in every 4 deaths in general.

The good news is that there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of cancer.  Listed below are the known risk factors and recommendations to reduce risk for most types of cancer.  Some cancers such as lung cancer are greatly reduced by lifestyle changes (e.g. quitting smoking).  Others, such as prostate cancer, have few behavioral risk factors associated with them but can be detected early with regular examination.  Across all of these types of cancers, four important lifestyle  changes typically reduce risk:

  • Do not smoke or use any other form of tobacco.  Visit our site about Tobacco Dependence.

  • Eat a healthy diet low in fat and high in fiber (lots of fruits and vegetables).  Visit our site about Weight Loss.

  • Reduce exposure to the sun and other sources of radiation.

  • Perform the recommended tests and exams for early detection.

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Basal Cell Cancer

This is the most frequent type of cancer. People with a family history of skin cancer have a greater risk of developing basal cell cancer. Other risk factors include regular exposure to sunlight or other ultraviolet radiation, over exposure to X-rays or other forms of radiation, and exposure to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic (which is present in certain herbicides) and radium. The best way to prevent the onset of basal cell cancer is to minimize your exposure to the sun, especially during the mid-day hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) when the sun is the most intense. If you do spend time outside, be sure to use sunscreen, at least SPF 15. Read the instructions on the bottle concerning how frequently you need to reapply the lotion, and be sure that the sunscreen hasn’t expired.

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Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer rarely occurs among people below the age of 40. One in four cases of bladder cancer is due to exposure to carcinogens at the workplace. Textile workers, painters, hairdressers, and people who work with leather, metal or rubber are some examples of those at risk in the workplace. Smokers have a four-fold increased risk in developing bladder cancer as opposed to non-smokers. Women who have received radiation therapy for cervical cancer are also at a greater risk. People who have used the drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) for chemotherapy have a nine times greater risk of developing bladder cancer. Bladder cancer occurs most frequently in the United States and England; it also occurs more frequently in the northern states of the U.S. than it does in the southern states. Eliminating known carcinogenic agents (cigarette smoking and environmental hazards) may reduce your risk of developing bladder cancer.

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Breast Cancer

Risk factors include personal and family history of breast cancer, early menarche (first period before age 12), obesity, late onset of menopause (after age 50), alcohol abuse, smoking, lack of exercise, and delayed or absent child bearing. The risks of developing breast cancer increase exponentially after the age of 30. The American Cancer Society states that the best prevention is to reduce the risk factors for breast cancer whenever possible and to follow the guidelines for early detection. All women aged 20 or older should perform monthly breast self-examinations, and a health professional should administer a clinical breast exam every 3 years for women from 20 to 39 years old or annually for women over the age of 40.  For women age 50 or older, a mammogram every 1 to 2 years is recommended.    For women age 40 to 50, a mammogram may be recommended by your doctor if you are at moderate or high risk for breast cancer. Also, a diet high in fruits, vegetables and fiber as well as getting plenty of exercise will reduce the risk of this cancer.

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Cervical Cancer

If you begin to have sexual intercourse before the age of 18 you are at a greater risk of developing cervical cancer. Also, if you have multiple partners or bear a child before the age of 16, you are at a higher risk. Some sexually transmitted diseases such as HPV (Human Papilloma Virus or genital warts), HIV infection, and genital herpes also increase the risk of developing cancer of the cervix. Women who were exposed to the drug DES (Diethylsrilbestrol) in utero are at a higher risk. Having safe and responsible sex will reduce the risk of cervical cancer. A pelvic examination, including a pap smear, should be performed yearly beginning with the onset of sexual activity or at the age of 20 for those women who are not sexually active.

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Colorectal Cancer

The causes of this cancer are unclear, but there is an association with having a personal history of intestinal polyps, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancer. People with Immunodeficiency disorders also have a higher risk of developing colon cancer. A family history of colorectal cancer is associated with the likelihood of developing this form of cancer as well. In addition, obesity is a risk factor; more so if the extra weight is located in the waist area rather than the hips or thighs. Lack of exercise and aging increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer too. Dietary factors like high meat, high fat or low fiber increase the risk of developing colon cancer. Risk for this form of cancer is reduced by exercising and maintaining a healthy diet and weight, and to remove polyps in the colon or rectum before they become malignant.

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Endometrial Cancer

Women who are post menopausal and over the age of 50 are at a greater risk of developing endometrial cancer as well as those women who reach menopause late. Women who take estrogen replacement therapies without also taking progestins have a 2 to 12 – fold increase in risk of developing uterine cancer. The longer a woman takes estrogens alone, the greater the risk. Excessive weight is an important risk factor related to endometrial cancer. Women who are obese (over 200 pounds) have a much greater chance of developing this disease than those women who are under 125 pounds. Hypertension and diabetes are related to the onset of this kind of cancer; however most women who suffer from hypertension and/or diabetes are also obese, so it is difficult to ascertain how much of the risk is due to the condition rather than to being overweight. Another risk factor is having irregular menstrual periods. To reduce the risk of endometrial cancer, maintain a normal body weight. Also, the use of birth control pills during the childbearing years can decrease your risk of both endometrial and ovarian cancer. Studies show that the use of birth control pills for 5-10 years decreases the risk of onset by about 50%. Finally, taking an estrogen replacement therapy in combination with progestins, as opposed to taking estrogens alone, will decrease the risk of onset as well.

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Esophageal Cancer

People with chronic irritation of the esophagus due to smoking and drinking alcohol have a greater risk of developing cancer of the esophagus. Only 8 in 100,000 people suffer from this kind of cancer, but it occurs most often among people over 50, and the likelihood is increased among those already suffering from cancers of the nose or throat. The best means of reducing risk therefore, is to limit cigarette and alcohol consumption.

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Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

The incidence of this disease is 2 out of 10,000 people, and it peaks in those 15 to 35 and 50 to 70 years old. People in higher socio-economic groups and men are more frequently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Although there is a slightly increased risk among first degree relatives of people with this disease, genetic factors are not clear. Approximately 20-50% of individuals with Hodgkin’s disease have been found to carry Epstein-Barr virus genes in their tissue; however, it is not known that Epstein-Barr causes Hodgkin’s disease. Although little is known about prevention, Hodgkin’s disease is very treatable. About 90% of people who are treated in the early stages of Hodgkin’s disease have no reocurrence.

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Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes of the circulatory system. High-risk groups for this type of cancer include organ transplant recipients and people who have compromised immune systems. Onset of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma occurs mostly in individuals over the age of 50. Little is known about lifestyle risk factors that may contribute to this condition.

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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that can occur in all ages and both sexes. It occurs more frequently in males than it does in females, and also more frequently among whites than it does among African Americans. Ten times as many adults as children are stricken. More than half of all cases occur in people over 60. Risk factors include chronic exposure to benzene in the workplace and exposure to extraordinary doses of radiation, but most cases of leukemia have no apparent risk factor.

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Lung Cancer

The leading risk factor for lung cancer is smoking. More than 80% of lung cancers are due to cigarette smoking. The longer a person has been smoking and also the more cigarettes a person smokes a day, the greater the risk is for developing lung cancer. Not only are smokers vulnerable to lung cancer, but the people around them are at a greater risk as well due to breathing second-hand smoke. Non-smokers who are married to smokers are at a 30% greater risk than non-smokers who are married to non-smokers. Marijuana cigarettes may also increase the risk of lung cancer since they contain many of the same cancer-causing agents that tobacco cigarettes have and are inhaled more deeply. Exposure to  workplace carcinogens also increase the risk. Asbestos workers are seven times more likely to die of lung cancer than the general population. Miners are at a much greater risk because of exposure to radion and radioactive ores. People who work with arsenic, vinyl chloride, nickel chromates, coal products, mustard gas and chloromethyl ethers are also at a greater risk. Many steps have been taken by the government to reduce the risks in the workplace; however, workers in these conditions should be careful to avoid exposure.  The best way to reduce the risk of lung cancer is to refrain from smoking and to avoid people who do smoke. There is also increasing evidence that a diet containing lots of flavonoids (found in apples, onions, and other fruits and vegetables) may prevent lung cancer.

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Ovarian Cancer

If a woman has a history of breast cancer, the risk of developing ovarian cancer is twice the risk of other women. Also, if there is a history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer among an individual’s mother or sister, the chances of developing ovarian cancer is increased. Another important risk factor to consider is having a poor reproductive history (i.e. infertility, miscarriage, repeated abortion, or delayed child bearing beyond age 30). Prolonged use of the fertility drug clomiphene may increase the risk of developing ovarian tumors, especially if pregnancy is not achieved. The use of estrogen also increases the risk of ovarian cancer, except for estrogen found in oral contraceptives which may hinder the onset of ovarian cancer. Actually, there seems to be a relationship between the number of menstrual cycles women experience and the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Procedures that reduce menstrual cycles (i.e. birth control pills, hysterectomy, or tubal ligation after childbearing) seem to decrease the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Even breast-feeding may decrease the risk, probably because it increases the time before menstruation resumes after childbearing. However, once a woman reaches menopause, the risk of onset increases dramatically. Half of all ovarian cancer cases are among women over the age of 65.    Regular pelvic exams, especially after menopause are crucial to early detection and treatment.

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Pancreatic Cancer

After the age of 50 the risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases. Most diagnoses are among people between the ages of 60 and 80. Men are about 30% more likely than women to develop this kind of cancer. Heredity does play a small role (5-10% of cases) in onset of cancer of the pancreas. The risk of developing this kind of cancer is also higher among those who smoke. About 30% of cases are directly related to cigarette smoking. Pancreatic cancer occurs more commonly in people who suffer from chronic pancreatitis and diabetes mellitus. However, it is important to note that the majority of people with pancreatitis do not develop cancer of the pancreas. Among those with an inherited form of chronic pancreatitis the risk of developing pancreatic cancer is 40-75%. Stopping smoking reduces the risk.

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Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer mostly occurs among men over the age of 40; it is rare to find a case among men below this age. It occurs most frequently in black men over the age of 60. Exposure to cadmium has been found to increase the risk of developing prostate cancer; farmers, tire workers and painters are sometimes around cadmium. Studies have also shown that increased testosterone levels increase risk. Men over 40 should get regular prostate examinations. 

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Testicular Cancer

Having a medical history of undescended testicle, mumps orchitis (inflammation of the testicles) or inguinal hernia during childhood increases the risk of developing testicular cancer among men. Shortly after puberty men should be taught how to conduct testicular self-examinations (TSE).

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American Cancer Society -- www.cancer.org

CanCare -- www.health.sa.gov.au/cancare/default.htm

CancerNet-- www.cancernet.nci.nih.gov

Jefferson Health System -- www.jeffersonhealth.org

MSNBC Health Library -- www.msnbc.com/news/healthlibrary_front.asp

Women’s Cancer Network -- www.wcn.org

Yahoo!health -- http://health.yahoo.com/

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Page last modified June 6, 2011