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Cancer risk factor facts*
*Cancer risk factor facts by John P. Cunha, DO, FACOE
- The most common risk factors for cancer include aging, tobacco, sun exposure, radiation exposure, chemicals and other substances, some viruses and bacteria, certain hormones, family history of cancer, alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity, or being overweight.
- Some causes of cancer can be prevented but others such as family history or aging cannot.
- You can help prevent many forms of cancer by quitting smoking, staying out of the sun and using sunscreen regularly, follow all safety precautions if you work with dangerous chemicals, do not have unprotected sex or share needles, get the vaccine that prevents hepatitis B infection if you are at risk for getting hepatitis B, drink in moderation, eat a balanced diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight.
Doctors often cannot explain why one person develops cancer and another does not. But research shows that certain risk factors increase the chance that a person will develop cancer. These are the most common risk factors for cancer:
- Growing older
- Ionizing radiation
- Certain chemicals and other substances
- Some viruses and bacteria
- Certain hormones
- Family history of cancer
- Poor diet, lack of physical activity, or being overweight
Many of these risk factors can be avoided. Others, such as family history, cannot be avoided. People can help protect themselves by staying away from known risk factors whenever possible.
If you think you may be at risk for cancer, you should discuss this concern with your doctor. You may want to ask about reducing your risk and about a schedule for checkups.
Over time, several factors may act together to cause normal cells to become cancerous. When thinking about your risk of getting cancer, these are some things to keep in mind:
- Not everything causes cancer.
- Cancer is not caused by an injury, such as a bump or bruise.
- Cancer is not contagious. Although being infected with certain viruses or bacteria may increase the risk of some types of cancer, no one can "catch" cancer from another person.
- Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will get cancer. Most people who have risk factors never develop cancer.
- Some people are more sensitive than others to the known risk factors.
The sections below have more detailed information about the most common risk factors for cancer. You also may want to read the NCI booklet Cancer and the Environment.