Understanding and Managing Cancer Risk Factors
The question of “what causes cancer” is complex and multi-layered; the same risk factors that result in a cancer diagnosis for one person may result in a cancer-free life for someone else.
Becoming more educated about your personal cancer risk—and understanding those factors that are in your control and those that are not—can go a long way in helping you improve your health and lower your risk of developing a variety of cancers.
“Cancer is not one specific genetic event,” says Dr. Jeffrey Cilley, a hematologist/oncologist at Swedish Hospital. “It’s a mutation with a carcinogen; usually, a perfect storm.”
At his recent “Simplifying cancer prevention” session at Swedish Hospital, Dr. Cilley discussed the importance of understanding cancer and its risk factors, and taking steps to lower your overall risk of developing it.
Cancer Risk Factors You Can't Control
It’s a fact: there are several risk factors for cancer that are not within your control. These factors have to do with your genetic makeup and family history. Though you can’t change these factors, you can become better informed about them to help you understand your baseline cancer risk. Risk factors you can’t control include:
Old age—the most important risk factor for developing cancer—is often overlooked. Most cancer occurs in people who are over the age of 65.
Family History/Inherited Risk
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately five to ten percent of all cancers are inherited cancers. This means that a person inherits an abnormal gene from a parent that results in a mutation which can lead to cancer. It is important to note that the relatively low incidence of inherited cancers demonstrates that cancer which seems to run in families may not be genetic; it may, instead, indicate that people in the same family often share many of the same controllable risk factors, such as obesity or smoking.
Unexplainable Genetic Mutations
While some genetic abnormalities are inherited, others may surface later in life and have no explainable cause.
Cancer Risk Factors You Can Control
By combining a deeper understanding of your uncontrollable cancer risk factors with a plan for reducing your number of controllable risk factors, you have a better chance of staying one step ahead of cancer. The following risk factors may not be easy to change, but with help from your primary care physician or oncologist, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing a variety of cancers. Cancer risk factors you can control include:
People who smoke tobacco have a heightened risk of developing cancer, compared to people who do not smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 180,000 people in the United States die from tobacco-related cancer each year. The risk for developing cancer is also higher for people exposed to secondhand smoke.
Exposure to Some Chemicals and Substances
People who have jobs that put them in frequent contact with asbestos, nickel, vinyl chloride and other substances may have a higher risk of developing cancer. It is important to follow the safety guidelines for various chemicals to ensure that you protect yourself from overexposure.
Excessive UV Radiation Exposure
Radiation from the sun can lead to genetic mutations in skin cells that can cause cancer. Use sunscreen if you plan to spend time in the sun, and remember that UV radiation exposure from tanning beds can also raise your risk of developing skin cancer.
Besides contributing to your overall health, a healthy diet plays an important role in preventing cancer. Though evidence has been mixed, certain fats and red meats have been associated with cancer. High levels of glucose from carbohydrates are associated with type 2 diabetes, which also raises your cancer risk.
Inactivity and being overweight has been associated with an increased risk of many types of cancers, including breast, colon and kidney cancer. Along with diet, a healthy exercise regimen can help ensure that you help to maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk for developing cancer.
By understanding the risk factors that you can and cannot control, you can take steps toward a healthier life and lower your overall risk for developing cancer.
By Nicole Joseph