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Know The Leading Cancer Risk Factors

We hear the word “cancer” and we think of only one disease. However, cancer is made up of many different diseases that have different causes. Some are risk factors you have control over, while others are in your DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, the unique inherited genetic material that defines each human being.

Here’s what you need to know to help protect your health. Think of this as your starting point. To learn more, please go to “Choosing a Website” before starting your search.


Inheriting certain genes from your parents raises your risk of cancer, but is not a guaranteed predictor. Genetics specialists estimate that only about 2 or 3 in every 100 cancers diagnosed are linked to an inherited gene fault.

Some genes carry a higher risk than others. For instance, women and men who have inherited certain changes in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have a higher risk of breast cancer (and other cancers), and the breast cancer may develop at a younger age.

Having a fair complexion—fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan or tans poorly; blue, green or other light-colored eyes; and red or blond hair—is a risk factor for the most serious type of skin cancer, melanoma.

 Outside Factors

All cancers develop because something has gone wrong with one or more of the genes in a cell. But most of these gene changes happen during our lives. They happen as we get older or because of something we are exposed to, such as cigarette smoke or sunlight. These substances are called carcinogens because they bring about changes in the genes that make body cells more likely to become cancerous. These gene changes don’t affect all body cells. They are not inherited and cannot be passed on to your children.


Cigarettes and tobacco products are at the top of the list of known risk factors for cancer as well as other illnesses like COPD and heart disease. Scientists estimate that cigarette smoking alone is responsible for 30 percent of the country’s cancer deaths and 20 percent of all deaths, including deaths from secondhand smoke and heart disease.

Specific cancers caused by tobacco include:

 Smoking is a factor in

  • Cervical and uterine cancers
  • Colon cancer



Immunosuppressive medications

These are drugs typically taken by people who have had an organ transplant to avoid organ rejection. Taking them increases the incidence of:

  • Skin cancer (most common)
  • Lymphoma
  • Cervical cancer
  • Liver cancer


Studies have shown that drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of:

Drinking alcohol may also increase the risk of liver cancer and female colorectal cancer.


There are links between air pollution and cancer risk, including links between lung cancer and secondhand tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution and asbestos.


Studies show that obesity is linked to a higher risk of:

  • Breast cancer, typically in postmenopausal women who haven’t used replacement hormone therapy
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Endometrial cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

Many studies have looked at specific foods and their role in cancer, both as risk factors and possible prevention. Results of successive studies often contradict previous ones. However, there are health merits to eating well and minimizing processed foods since this approach is key to avoiding obesity, and obesity is a cancer risk factor.  For more, see the “Eat Healthy” section of the Self chec prevention guide.


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