Smoking, obesity, and unhealthy diets are the biggest risk factors for cancer. But a range of other little-known factors you may not know about can also lead to deadly cancer.
“The best cancer weapon is prevention — equal parts awareness and action. While smoking and obesity are known cancer risks, there are lesser-known conditions and lifestyle choices that can make you more susceptible to a cancer diagnosis,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz.
“Additionally, while exercise and a balanced diet are known to improve your health, there are other activities and practices you can incorporate into your life to decrease your risk.”
Here’s a look at five surprising things that many people are unaware can raise their risk of cancer, based on research compiled and cited by the American Cancer Society, Environmental Protection Agency, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
1. Night shift work: Women who work a night shift at least three nights a month — for example, nurses or 911 dispatchers — face an increased risk of colorectal and breast cancer, according to several studies cited by the American Cancer Society. Recent research, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, has also concluded that men who work the night shift face a three times greater risk of prostate cancer than those who maintain more traditional work hours.
That study, conducted by scientists at the University of Quebec and the Centre INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier, found night-shift workers face greater risks for cancers of the lung, colon, rectum, bladder, and pancreas, as well. The researchers suggested this might be due to changes in levels of melatonin — a naturally occurring hormone that responds to changes in light — in the body. Sleep loss may be another factor.
What you can do: If you can’t cut back on your night-shift hours, health experts recommend taking melatonin supplements and making sure to get sufficient sleep during the day — in a darkened room — to boost your immune system. Some companies are also experimenting with different kinds of artificial lighting that don't affect melatonin production, so it might be worth asking your employer about those possibilities.
2. Birth control pills: Women using birth control pills have been found to have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them, the American Cancer Society notes. The risk seems to go back to normal over time once the pills are stopped. Women who stopped using oral contraceptives more than 10 years ago do not appear to have any increased breast cancer risk.
Hormones are likely the culprit, experts say. Other factors related to female hormones — including early menstruation, late menopause, and estrogen therapy — have also been implicated in breast cancer risk.
What you can do: If you’re considering using oral contraceptives, experts recommend discussing other potential risk factors for breast cancer with your doctor. You may also want to consider alternate forms of contraception or try to balance other cancer risks by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors you can control. For instance, exercise, eating a healthy diet, and having children before the age of 30 (and breastfeeding) have all be shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
3. Too little sunlight: Too much exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun is a well-known risk factor for deadly melanoma and other skin cancers. But what you may not know is that sunlight also activates a chemical in the skin that produces vitamin D, an essential vitamin necessary for many bodily functions, with potential proactive properties against some cancers — including those of the colon, rectum, and pancreas, according to the American Cancer Society. The key is making sure to get some sun exposure, but not overdoing it.
What you can do: Realize that 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. You can also get vitamin D from supplements and some fortified foods, such as milk.
4. Risky sex: Viruses and bacteria don't cause many cancers, but there are a few noteworthy sexually transmitted infections that play a major role. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the cause of almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat, according to the CDC. Hepatitis B and C infections can also cause liver cancer. People infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are at greater risk of lymphoma and Kaposi's sarcoma.
What you can do: The CDC recommends young girls and boys receive HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12 years. HPV vaccines are also recommended for teens who did not get the vaccine when they were younger, young women through age 26 and young men through age 21. There are two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix. The vaccines are given as a series of three shots over 6 months to protect against HPV infection and the health problems that HPV infection can cause. Health experts also recommend adults be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases to know their status, get appropriate treatment, and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other partners.
5. Age: The leading cancer risk factor is the one we rarely even think about: 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 body's natural protective mechanisms begin to fail, the American Cancer Society notes.
What you can do: Although you can’t control advancing age, health experts note that you can mitigate the impacts of aging and reduce your cancer risks by making lifestyle changes you can control. Among them:
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- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Get moving with regular physical activity.
- Eat a healthy diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink (if you drink at all).
- Avoid tobacco.
- Protect your skin.
- Know yourself, your family history, and your risks.
- Have regular check-ups and cancer screening tests.
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