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Five Things That Increase Your Cancer Risk

February 24, 2023

An African-American woman prepares to drink a green juice smoothie.

While not all cancers can be prevented, healthy lifestyle habits and a better understanding of your personal risk can help you reduce your chances of developing cancer.

“Although you can’t control aging or a family history of cancer, you can make some lifestyle adjustments that help minimize your cancer risk factors,” says Eric D. Whitman, MD, medical director, Atlantic Health System Cancer Care. “Obesity, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, viral infections (such as HPV or human papillomavirus), and exposure to ultraviolet rays and dangerous chemicals all contribute.”

Here are Dr. Whitman’s top five considerations to help reduce your risk.

1.Maintain a Healthy Weight

Evidence shows that preventing excess body weight reduces the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer including colorectal, breast (post-menopause), uterine, esophageal, kidney, liver, and pancreatic, to name a few.

A healthy weight and physical strength can also help improve a person’s response to cancer treatment and outcomes -- if they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Healthy bodies are also less likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. So, if your habits include too much sitting and screen time, be sure to build in time to move as much as you rest.

2.Protect Your Skin from UV Rays

Cumulative exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, sunlamps and tanning beds all age the skin and can lead to skin cancers like basal cell, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and others.

Limit your time in the sun, especially between 10:00am and 4:00pm. Since UV radiation reflects off windows, pavement, water, snow, ice, and sand, use a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 every single day. Be sure to follow sunscreen recommendations and teach kids proper protection for safe, healthy skincare.

3.If You Smoke, Quit

Tobacco use can harm nearly every organ in the body. Quitting smoking lowers the risk for 12 types of cancer: lung, larynx, oral cavity and pharynx, esophagus, pancreas, bladder, stomach, colon and rectum, liver, cervix, kidney, and acute myeloid leukemia.

When the poisons in cigarette smoke weaken the immune system, it becomes difficult for the body to eliminate cancer cells. This causes extreme cell growth that ultimately forms a cancerous tumor.

4.Drink in Moderation

Evidence indicates that regular alcohol intake over time increases cancer risk. Alcohol is a carcinogen linked to cancer of the head and neck, liver, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, breast, and colon/rectum.

It also damages DNA and proteins, forcing the body to work hard to break down the ethanol in alcoholic drinks. So, if you choose to drink wine or alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

5.Fuel Your Body

Scientists have extensively studied the connection between diet and cancer risk. Nutrient-rich foods are key to a healthy immune system that will help fight off cancer and prevent disease.

Eat a nutritious diet full of fruits and vegetables, with red meat and processed foods in moderation. At the grocery store, shop in a ‘big loop’ to avoid the middle aisles with sodas, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. Be sure you’re drinking plenty of water too -- about four to six cups a day -- to dilute harmful substances in your urine and keep your body humming.


Become Your Own Health Advocate

“We all are responsible for our own health,” says Dr. Whitman. “Your doctor can help you understand your cancer risk and make recommendations based on your own unique health history. For most, that will include routine cancer screenings such as a mammogram or colonoscopy. Those with a strong family history of cancer, may want to take it a step further and consider genetic testing to assess their risk.”

Be Proactive About Your Health

Stay up to date with your annual wellness exams and screenings to prevent and detect more serious issues.