Understanding And Lowering Risk

Doctors and clinical researchers do not know the exact cause of cancer. However, it is widely accepted that certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing the disease.

We have control over some of the factors (such as lifestyle factors) and can take steps to lower risk by making better choices about our habits. Other factors (such as genetic factors) are not in our control, but it is still important to be aware of these factors and remain vigilant.

Lifestyle factors

Lifestyle factors are habits cultivated over time that dictate what our way of living is like. Since we choose these habits, we can also control them in order to mitigate any adverse effects.


The body requires a balanced diet to ensure that it functions in a healthy manner. Following a balanced diet is good for your overall health – it will ensure that you get the optimal amount of nutrients and help you maintain a healthy BMI.

Some ways to maintain an ideal diet include

  Limiting portion sizes

  Using fresh, organic and locally-sourced food

  Avoiding foods that contain high levels of salt, fat, sugar and added preservatives

An unhealthy or imbalanced diet can lead to obesity. Being overweight can cause the body to produce and circulate more oestrogen and insulin; excess levels of these hormones are known risk factors for certain types of cancers.

Physical Activity

Studies have shown that regular physical activity can help you

  Maintain a healthy body weight

  Maintain hormonal balance

  Improve your immune system

Maintaining an active lifestyle can also help lower your risk of developing cancer and other chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Tobacco Use

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the world. Smoking tobacco through cigarettes or other forms can be extremely harmful, as the smoke from these products is a complex mixture of chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer.

Smoking during pregnancy is even more dangerous. Nicotine, carbon monoxide, and other toxins in the smoke can enter the mother’s bloodstream, causing long-term damage to both mother and baby.

Keeping your household smoke-free can go a long way in reducing the risk of developing cancer, for yourself and for your loved ones.

Alcohol Use

Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

For people who have already been diagnosed with cancer, alcohol intake can also affect the risk of recurrence or developing a new type of cancer.

Alcohol intake needs to be limited, as it can damage body tissues, enhance harmful effects of other chemicals, hamper absorption of vital nutrients and disrupt hormone levels, among other issues.

Genetic factors

Lifestyle factors are habits cultivated over time that dictate what our way of living is like. Since we choose these habits, we can also control them in order to mitigate any adverse effects.

Family History

As cancer becomes more common, many families may have instances of close or distant relatives developing cancer. This could be due to factors like genetic predispositions or shared unhealthy behaviours such as a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy eating habits or alcoholism.

Additionally, if one member of a household indulges in smoking, the rest the family can also be at increased risk due to the ingestion of second-hand smoke. Obesity or a family history of hormonal imbalance can also lead to increased risk of cancer. Read more

In a few cases, cancer is caused by an abnormal gene that is passed along from generation to generation. Only about 5% to 10% of all cancers result directly from gene defects (called mutations) inherited from a parent. Read more

Genetic Mutations

Genes are what make up our DNA. Our DNA is present inside each cell and that provides it with its characteristics. The genes tell the cell what to do and when to grow and divide. As cancer begins at the cellular level, a genetic predisposition can increase the risk of cancer in some cases.

An abnormal change in a gene is called a mutation; these mutations can be either inherited or acquired. An inherited gene mutation is one that comes through one or both parents, and runs in families. An acquired (somatic) mutation does not come from a parent, but is acquired some time later and are much more common than inherited mutations.

While cancers in the same family are often a result of shared lifestyle choices, multiple cases of cancers in the family are sometimes linked to an inherited gene mutation. This is known as family cancer syndrome. Family cancer syndrome may be suspected when

Many cases of a rare or uncommon cancer occur in the same family

Cancers occur at a younger age than usual (such as colon cancer in a 20-year-old)

More than one type of cancer occurs in a single person (such as a woman with both breast and ovarian cancer)

Both organs in a pair are affected by cancer (for example, both eyes, both kidneys,
or both breasts)

There is more than one case of childhood cancer in siblings (such as sarcoma in both
a brother and a sister)

Cancers that are not common for the gender occur (e.g. breast cancer in a man)

Cancer occurs in many generations (e.g. in a grandfather, father, and son)

Environmental factors

Sun Exposure

Prolonged exposure to harmful rays of the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer. Sunlight contains ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can damage the genes by affecting the DNA, which in turn may lead to cancer.

Most forms of skin cancer are a result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight. Both basal cell and squamous cell cancers (the most common types of skin cancer) tend to be found on sun-exposed parts of the body. Certain types of melanoma (a less common type of skin cancer) are also related to sun exposure.

If you or a family member are going to be out in the sun for more than a few minutes, consider using sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF).


Carcinogens are external factors or substances that aid or promote the formation of cancer in the body. Prolonged exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos, pesticides or chemical fertilizers may increase your risk of developing cancer.

If a substance has been designated as a carcinogen, it does not mean that it will always cause cancer. There are other factors that influence whether a person exposed to a carcinogen will develop cancer, including the amount and duration of the exposure and the individual’s genetic background.

Other factors

Low immunity

People who have recently had a transplant, or those with HIV or similar medical conditions may have weak immune systems. Having a low immunity means that you are more prone to get infections, and have a higher risk of developing cancer.

Not everyone with low immunity will develop cancer. However, if you or a loved one have a weak immune system, it is important to have an open discussion with your doctor about reducing your risk.


Viral infections are very common and usually do not cause cancer to develop. However, a small number of viruses have been linked to a higher risk of certain types of cancer. These include

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Hepatitis B and C


Epstein-Barr virus

T-cell leukaemia virus

Not everyone infected with these viruses will develop cancer. However, if you or a loved one have been diagnosed with any of these viruses, it is important to have an open discussion with your doctor about reducing your risk.

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