Topic updated: February 2013

Cancer Prevention

What is Prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

Cancer is not a single disease but a group of related diseases. Many things in our genes, our lifestyle, and the environment around us may increase or decrease our risk of getting cancer.

Scientists are studying many different ways to help prevent cancer, including the following:

Risk Factors

Scientists study risk factors and protective factors to find ways to prevent new cancers from starting. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Risk factors that a person can control are called modifiable risk factors.

Many other factors in our environment, diet, and lifestyle may cause or prevent cancer. This summary reviews only the major cancer risk factors and protective factors that can be controlled or changed to reduce the risk of cancer. Risk factors that are not described in the summary include certain sexual behaviors, the use of estrogen, and being exposed to certain substances at work or to certain chemicals.

Factors That are Known to Increase the Risk of Cancer

Cigarette Smoking and Tobacco Use

Tobacco use is strongly linked to an increased risk for many kinds of cancer. Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of the following types of cancer:

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
  • Bladder cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Kidney cancer.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Oral cavity cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer.
  • Stomach cancer.

Not smoking or quitting smoking lowers the risk of getting cancer and dying from cancer. Scientists believe that cigarette smoking causes about 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States.

Infections

Certain viruses and bacteria are able to cause cancer. Viruses and other infection -causing agents cause more cases of cancer in the developing world (about 1 in 4 cases of cancer) than in developed nations (less than 1 in 10 cases of cancer). Examples of cancer-causing viruses and bacteria include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) increases the risk for cancers of the cervix, penis, vagina, anus, and oropharynx.
  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses increase the risk for liver cancer.
  • Epstein-Barr virus increases the risk for Burkitt lymphoma.
  • Helicobacter pylori increases the risk for gastric cancer.

Two vaccines to prevent infection by cancer-causing agents have already been developed and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One is a vaccine to prevent infection with hepatitis B virus. The other protects against infection with strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer. Scientists continue to work on vaccines against infections that cause cancer.

Radiation

Being exposed to radiation is a known cause of cancer. There are two main types of radiation linked with an increased risk for cancer:

  • Ultraviolet radiation from sunlight: This is the main cause of nonmelanoma skin cancers.
  • Ionizing radiation including:
    • Medical radiation from tests to diagnose cancer such as x-rays, CT scans, fluoroscopy, and nuclear medicine scans.
    • Radon gas in our homes.

Scientists believe that ionizing radiation causes leukemia, thyroid cancer, and breast cancer in women. Ionizing radiation may also be linked to myeloma and cancers of the lung, stomach, colon, esophagus, bladder, and ovary. Being exposed to radiation from diagnostic x-rays increases the risk of cancer in patients and x-ray technicians.

The risk of cancer after being exposed to ionizing radiation from diagnostic x-rays is higher for younger age groups than for older age groups, and is higher for women than for men. The risk of cancer also increases with the number of diagnostic x-rays a patient is given and the radiation dose per x-ray.

Factors That May Affect the Risk of Cancer

Diet

The foods that you eat on a regular basis make up your diet. Diet is being studied as a risk factor for cancer. It is hard to study the effects of diet on cancer because a person's diet includes foods that may protect against cancer and foods that may increase the risk of cancer.

It is also hard for people who take part in the studies to keep track of what they eat over a long period of time. This may explain why studies have different results about how diet affects the risk of cancer.

Some studies show that fruits and nonstarchy vegetables may protect against cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Fruits may also protect against lung cancer.

Some studies have shown that a diet high in fat, proteins, calories, and red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer, but other studies have not shown this.

It is not known if a diet low in fat and high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables lowers the risk of colorectal cancer.

Alcohol

Studies have shown that drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of the following types of cancers:

  • Oral cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Breast cancer.
  • Colorectal cancer (in men).

Drinking alcohol may also increase the risk of liver cancer and female colorectal cancer.

Physical Activity

Studies show that people who are physically active have a lower risk of certain cancers than those who are not. It is not known if physical activity itself is the reason for this.

Studies show a strong link between physical activity and a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Some studies show that physical activity protects against postmenopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer.

Obesity

Studies show that obesity is linked to a higher risk of the following types of cancer:

  • Postmenopausal breast cancer.
  • Colorectal cancer.
  • Endometrial cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer.
  • Kidney cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer.

Some studies show that obesity is also a risk factor for cancer of the gallbladder.

Studies do not show that losing weight lowers the risk of cancers that have been linked to obesity.

Environmental Risk Factors

Being exposed to chemicals and other substances in the environment has been linked to some cancers:

  • Links between air pollution and cancer risk have been found. These include links between lung cancer and secondhand tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, and asbestos.
  • Drinking water that contains a large amount of arsenic has been linked to skin, bladder, and lung cancers.

Studies have been done to see if pesticides and other pollutants increase the risk of cancer. The results of those studies have been unclear because other factors can change the results of the studies.

Read more from the National Cancer Institute.

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