Cancer: could you be at risk?

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The cause of most cancers is unknown. However some things are known to increase the risk of developing cancer.  You can lower your risk by reducing your exposure to substances known to cause cancer and by leading a healthier lifestyle.  This doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer - but it can help reduce your risk.

If a risk factor applies to you, this doesn’t mean you will develop cancer. It just means you are at greater risk. For example, a smoker is more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker.  However you are not protected from having lung cancer by being a non-smoker.

Some people inherit particular genes from their parents which can increase their risk of developing certain cancers. In a minority of cases exposure to a virus may increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer.

Major risk factors that increase your risk of developing cancer include age, environmental and lifestyle factors. 

Cancers are more common as you get older as the likelihood of genes being damaged increases, the longer you live. So if you notice any of the symptoms mentioned later, it is particularly important to follow them up promptly with your GP.

Environmental factors
There are several well known environmental factors or ‘carcinogens’ known to cause cancer.
These include:
  • tobacco smoke  
  • ultraviolet light from the sun 
  • asbestos
  • natural and man made radiation

Certain chemicals used in the workplace can also increase your risk of developing cancer, so it is important to follow health and safety regulations designed to minimise the risk of overexposure to these known carcinogens.

This increases your risk of developing not just lung cancer but over a dozen other cancers. Your risk is affected by how many cigarettes you smoke and how many years you’ve smoked. While giving up is the ideal, cutting down is worthwhile too.  You can speak to your GP or practice nurse, look on the NHS Smokefree website or call their helpline, to find out how the NHS can help you give up.

Excessive exposure to the sun
This increases your risk of developing all types of skin cancer. You can reduce your risk by:

  • keeping in the shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is at its strongest;
  • using high factor sunscreen (at least SPF 15) when out in the sun and re-applying it every 2 hours;
  • wearing a hat when out in the sun.

Lifestyle factors

Diet is thought to affect the risk of different cancers including bowel cancer.  You can reduce your risk by:

  • eating a varied, balanced diet;
  • eating plenty of different coloured fruit and vegetables;
  • eating plenty of fibre-rich cereals and fruit;
  • having a diet low in red and processed meat, saturated fat and salt;
  • keeping a healthy weight.

Regular exercise – something gentle such as walking, cycling or swimming – can help reduce your risk

Excessive alcohol consumption
This is linked to increased risk of several cancers including mouth, throat, liver and breast cancer.

There are several virus’ thought to increase the risk of developing some cancers.  An example is the link identified between the human papilloma virus (HPV) and cervical cancer.  However it’s important to remember that cancer itself is not infectious.

Inherited factors
If several members of your family have had cancer, you may worry whether this increases your risk. In fact only a small number of certain cancers are caused by an inherited faulty gene. In the case of breast cancer, less than 5% of breast cancer cases are due to faulty genes.

It is only likely that there is an inherited defective gene in your family if:

  • you have two or more close blood relatives on the same side of your family who have developed the same cancer;
  • cancers are presenting in close relatives before the age of 60;
  • a close relative has developed two different types of primary cancer.

If you are concerned, you may like to discuss your family history with your GP. 

We are grateful for the generous support of Sir Naim Dangoor CBE
and the Exilarch Foundation

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