Being Well

How Understanding the Causes of Cancer Can Help Prevent It

Obesity and diet raise your risk of developing at least 10 different cancers. Watching what you eat and drink, adding in exercise and avoiding too much sun can greatly lower your risk of cancer.

Cancer is a scary word. Couple that with the elusiveness of a total cure for all cancers, and it’s normal for people to feel wary about their risk of developing the disease. However, there’s good news. The American Cancer Society recently released its latest statistics, which show a 23 percent drop in cancer deaths since their peak in 1991. The society credits that dip to advances in treatment, and smoking cessation and other prevention efforts. Understanding common causes of cancer may be your best weapon for preventing it.

Researchers at Stony Brook University recently concluded that as many as 70 percent to 90 percent of cancer diagnoses are from lifestyle habits or environmental exposures. Most people recognize smoking as one of the main causes of cancer, but the following factors can be just as risky:

Obesity and Diet

Carrying excess weight increases your risk of many cancers, including breast, prostate and liver cancers, according to an article in Vim and Vigor.

Exercise is important, but what you eat also plays a role. The American Cancer Research Institute notes a link between processed meats and increased risk of colorectal cancer. An occasional hot dog isn’t cause for alarm, but consistently eating sausage, deli meat, bacon and other processed meats will up your risk.

One of the best ways to stave off cancer is to boost your plant intake, according to a discussion in Food and Nutrition. Make simple changes to add fruit throughout the day. Top cereal with raspberries, or mix banana slices in vanilla yogurt for breakfast. Add spinach to almost any sandwich. For dessert, dip strawberries in melted dark chocolate. Slice and put them on graham crackers for a twist on s’mores.


Although the reason why alcohol raises cancer risk isn’t fully understood, the ACS reports that overindulging has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal, breast, head and neck, esophageal and liver cancers. Experts recommend that women stick to one drink a day, and men to two.

To cut back, avoid drinking while watching TV, or choose a day or week to be “dry.” Drink water in between each alcoholic beverage to slow down and stay hydrated.

Sun/UV exposure

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed annually. Sun exposure leads to most skin cancers, including the highly curable basal-cell type and melanoma. Remember to keep your skin — and your kids’ skin — protected. Tanning beds also raise your risk.

Applying sunscreen to kids can be tough. Let them put it on you first, or have a race to see who can rub theirs in first. Cover more skin with long-sleeved swim shirts and use a sunscreen stick to make the process easier.


The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of 150 viruses transmitted through sexual and other contact. Many strains cause harmless warts, while others cause genital warts or lead to cervical, anal, mouth/throat and penile cancers. Boys and girls should get the HPV vaccine starting around age 11 or 12. The vaccine protects against the strains that increase cancer risk.

No one likes shots, but you can make it a chance to connect with your kids. Hang out and talk. Get ice cream or a manicure after your appointment to make the day special.

Cancer is still a leading cause of death throughout the country — however, the ACS reports that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers are caused by an inherited genetic defect. Therefore, maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle is key to lowering your risk.

Learn more about common risk factors and advice on proper cancer prevention from UVA Cancer Center.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney