6 Serious Risk Factors for Cancer

It is hard to know who will dodge the cancer bullet or be in the direct line of fire. Still, there are many things we do to ourselves that increase our chances. Learn the 6 leading risk factors for developing cancer and assess your cancer risk today.

6 Serious Risk Factors for Cancer

Wouldn't it be wonderful to step into Dr. Oz's Truth Tube and learn if you are at risk for certain cancers? Unfortunately, figuring out the cause of cancer has proven to be intensely complex. We already know that it is not just one thing that causes cancer in everyone. Sometimes cancer makes a beeline when a person inherits a faulty gene or is exposed to a potent carcinogen. And sometimes the cause is impossible to pin down. But there are some factors providing powerful hints when someone is at a higher risk for developing the disease. And if people respect these risk factors and take actions to reduce them, they might save their life.

What is a risk factor?

Doctors talk about risk factors as something that you do, or is done to you, that increases the chance of developing a disease. To establish risk factors researchers look at the details of people who have developed the disease for shared features like age, race, living habits, environmental exposures, commingling diseases, genetic defects and family history. When a commonality emerges, it is labeled as a risk factor.

It is not a perfect system, however. Some people are more susceptible to outside influences then others, while others have personal characteristics that are inherently protective. So you can have one or many risk factors and dodge the disease entirely, or have no known risk factors and get hit with the disease.

Still, if there are factors you can change, it makes sense to change them. Of course there might not be anything one can do to change their genes, race or age. But people at higher risk can up their surveillance by arranging screening tests at more regular intervals or take medicines known to reduce the risk in susceptible people.

Regardless, everyone should know his or her risk factor profile and learn what they can do to change - or eliminate - their chances of developing cancer.

So here's Dr. Oz's Countdown of the 6 most significant risk factors you should put on your radar.

6. Unhealthy Lifestyle Behaviors

It's no surprise that our daily living affects our risk for many diseases. Cancer is no different.

  • Smoking Tobacco - Smokers, (and the people breathing the smoke-filled air around them) increases the risk for at least 15 different cancers including lung, mouth, tongue, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas.
  • Alcohol Consumption - Drinking of alcoholic beverages can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, breast, colon and liver. It is not clear why, but alcohol may contain damaging chemicals, or produce toxic materials when it is digested and metabolized. Alcohol may also affect hormones such as estrogen, which is known to fuel certain cancers of the breast, ovaries and uterus. Alcohol can also reduce certain nutrients that can protect against cancer.
  • Risky Sexual Behavior - Viruses and bacteria don't cause many cancers, but there are a few noteworthy sexually transmitted infections that play a major role. A human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the cause of almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth and throat. Hepatitis B and C infections can cause liver cancer, and people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are at greater risk of lymphoma and Kaposi's sarcoma.

5. Too Little or Too Much Sunlight

Exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun has a double effect. On one hand, it activates a chemical in the skin that produces vitamin D, an essential vitamin necessary for many bodily functions. But it can also be damaging: Too much ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB rays) can cause melanoma and other types of skin cancer. And not enough sunlight can cause vitamin D deficiency, a recently proposed suspect in cancer of the colon, rectum and pancreas.


4. High-Fat, Low-Fiber Diet

Poor diet can have a damaging effect on many fronts. You may not eat enough foods containing protective nutrients, or you may eat too much of foods that can be damaging. People who favor diets that are high in fat - particularly saturated fat - or low in fiber, have an increased risk of cancers of the colon, uterus and prostate. Diets high in fat may also contribute to obesity, another major risk factor for cancer.

3. High Body Mass Index

A high body mass index (BMI), the height-to-weight ratio used to classify people as overweight or obese, can cause a wide range of illnesses including certain cancers. The higher the BMI, the higher the death rates for all cancers, particularly esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia. If a person has a BMI of 40 or higher the death rate from cancer is increased substantially - by 52% in men and 62% in women when compared to people of normal weight.

How obesity increases the risk for cancer is not clear, but fat cells are highly active, spewing hefty amounts of hormones such as estrogen, insulin, and insulin-like growth factors that can fuel many cancers.

Click here to calculate your BMI.

2. Family History of Cancer

Family history is one of those risk factors that we can do absolutely nothing about, but knowing what you might be up against is key to ramping up a plan of protection. A family history of cancer is suspected when several members are affected - sometimes at younger ages - or when members have multiple or unusual types of cancer.

Doctors know that there are some cancers caused by a defective gene that can be passed down from an affected parent. For example, hereditary forms of breast and ovarian cancer occur when a women inherits the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene. Not all cancers that run in families can be traced back to a specific defect.

1. Age

The leading risk factor is the one we all dread: growing older. Although cancer can occur at any age, most cancers are diagnosed in people older than 65, when cells begin to deteriorate and the natural protective mechanisms begin to fail.

The Lowdown on Lowering Your Cancer Risk

  • Find out your risk of developing 5 of the most important diseases in the United States and get personalized tips for preventing them. Your Disease Risk is a website of the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
  • Quit smoking  (and don't expose yourself to any tobacco smoke)
  • Do more physical activity
  • Lose weight if overweight (Follow Dr. Oz's Ultimate Diet )
  • Have periodic cancer-screening tests as recommended by your doctor
  • Protect yourself from long ultra violet light exposure and use sunscreen (SPF of 15 or higher) if you are planning to be in direct sun especially sun reflected by sand, water, snow or ice
  • Eat no more than 30% of daily calories from fat and choose foods that contain unsaturated fat vs. saturated or trans fats
  • Eat foods and high in fiber such as whole grains
  • Ask family members to share their cancer history
  • Consider genetic testing for known familial cancer genes
  • Ask your doctor if there are any preventive medicines you can take if you are at high risk for certain types of breast, prostate or colon cancer
  • Take a daily vitamin D supplement especially if you spend a long time indoors or measure deficient on blood tests
  • Practice safe sex and use condoms consistently and correctly
  • Do not share instruments (intravenous needles, toothbrushes) that can expose you to infected blood

Want to know how to look marvelous without splurging so much? Dr. Oz invites three beauty experts to share the smartest ways to save money while looking fabulous starting from your hair and makeup tools to the beauty products you use.