The more we learn about cancer, the more we learn about how to lower our chance of getting any of the 200 different types of cancer. Just as important, we understand more about what doesn’t cause cancer.
Many of the things that cause cancer can’t be prevented. For example, a lot of cancers are associated with aging, so just living to a ripe old age increases our risk. Similarly, we can’t change the genes that we inherit from our biological parents. Some families carry a specific gene that puts them at particularly high risk of certain types of cancer (including colon, breast and ovarian cancers), and other genes appear to play a role too.
However, science does show us something extremely important about preventing cancer: some of the same actions we’re encouraged to do for general health also help to prevent cancer. These include eating a well-balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruit, staying fit and avoiding some of the specific risk factors below.
- Smoking: Not smoking (or quitting smoking) is the single most important thing we can do to prevent lung cancer, which remains a leading cause of early death. Smoking can also contribute to esophageal cancer, and the use of chewing tobacco can cause cancers of the mouth.
- Excessive alcohol: Heavy alcohol consumption increases your risk of liver cancer and may increase your risk of esophageal cancer, especially among smokers.
- Sunburns and tanning: Especially in Caucasian people, skin cancers are directly linked to sun exposure. Both sunburns and tanning cause skin damage that accumulates over time. For that reason, the use of tanning beds is never safe. Ensure that play areas have some shade and use sun hats to prevent burns – sun block alone is not enough.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Hepatitis: Some types of hepatitis increase the risk of liver cancer. People who are at higher risk of being infected with hepatitis A or B (such as healthcare professionals) should talk to their doctor about the possibility of being vaccinated against these viruses. At present, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, which is transmitted sexually or through recreational or injected drug use.
- Work-related risks: Firefighters, miners and others who may inhale toxic substances in their workplace must understand and follow the appropriate safety guidelines. The same is true for people who work with radiation.
- Weight: Being overweight is associated with early puberty in girls, which can be a risk factor for breast cancer later on. This is just one reason why it’s important for children as well as adults to maintain a healthy weight.
You can’t ensure that you’ll never have cancer, but you can make a difference to your risk and take control of your health.