In this series, our bloggers partner with Highmark’s Health Promotion/Wellness Team to present topics that will help you lead a healthier lifestyle. Our wellness experts have a wealth of preventive health knowledge to share, so don’t miss out on their recommendations and guidance.


Cancer Awareness RibbonsNearly everyone has been affected by cancer. We all know someone who has developed the disease, and possibly many of you have had some form of it yourself.

It is often hard to explain why one person gets cancer and another does not. There are risk factors that could increase a person’s likelihood of developing cancer; however, some people may have many of these risk factors and never get cancer. And not all risk factors apply to all types of cancer. Some factors, however, are within your control.

What Causes Cancer?

When thinking about your risk of getting cancer, these are some things to keep in mind:

  • Cancer is not caused by an injury, such as a bump or bruise.
  • Cancer is not contagious. Certain viruses or bacteria may increase the risk of some types of cancer, but no one can “catch” cancer from another person.
  • Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get cancer. Many people who have risk factors never develop cancer.
  • Some people are more sensitive than others to the known risk factors.

It is nearly impossible to link cancer to one lifestyle choice or health factor. There are some things that put you at risk, as well as lifestyle changes you can make that may help reduce your risk.

Common Cancer Risk Factors

The wellness experts at Highmark have compiled some common factors that may put you at a higher risk for developing cancer.

  • Growing older. Most cancers occur in people over the age of 65. The longer you live, the longer you are exposed to multiple risk factors that may come together and cause normal cells to become cancerous. But people of all ages, including children, can get cancer, too.
  • Tobacco use. Each year, more than 180,000 Americans die from cancer that is related to tobacco use: smoking, chewing, or environmental and secondhand tobacco smoke. Tobacco is linked to many different cancers: lung, larynx (voice box), mouth, esophagus, bladder, kidney, throat, stomach, pancreas, cervix and blood (such as acute myeloid leukemia).
  • Alcohol consumption. More than two alcoholic drinks each day for many years increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver and breast. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks and is even higher for a drinker who uses tobacco.
  • Exposure to chemicals or ionizing radiation. Exposure to asbestos, benzene, benzidine, cadmium, nickel, radon or vinyl chloride in the home or workplace can cause cancer. Ionizing radiation comes from rays that enter the earth’s atmosphere from space, radioactive fallout, radon gas, X-ray and other sources. Radon is found in houses in some parts of the country, and those who work in mines may be exposed to radon.
  • Sunlight or ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation comes from the sun, sunlamps and tanning booths. It causes early aging of the skin and skin damage that can lead to skin cancer.
  • Certain viruses and bacteria. Viruses like human papillomavirus, or HPV, (which can cause cervical cancer) or hepatitis B and C (which can lead to liver cancer) can increase your risk. Vaccines are available for HPV and hepatitis B. Bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, which causes ulcers, can also increase the risk of stomach cancer.
  • Family history. Although it is uncommon for cancers to run in families, certain types of cancers do occur in some families more often, such as melanoma (a form of skin cancer), and cancers of the breast, ovary, prostate and colon.
  • Poor diet, lack of physical activity or being overweight. A diet that is high in fat increases the risk for cancers of the colon, uterus and prostate. Lack of physical activity and being overweight are risk factors for cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney and uterus.

While some factors like aging and family history cannot be prevented, many other risk factors can be avoided or reduced by making lifestyle changes.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk of Cancer?

There are several ways you can modify your lifestyle to help reduce your risk of getting cancer.

  • Avoid tobacco. The best thing you can do is to never start using tobacco. However, if you are a smoker, a Nurses Health Study shows the risk of dying from lung cancer for former female smokers dropped by 21 percent within five years of quitting.
  • Reduce exposure to the sun. Wearing SPF 15 or higher sunscreen or covering your skin with long sleeves, long pants, a hat with a brim and sunglasses that absorb UV rays can reduce your risk.
  • Reduce alcohol consumption. If you consume alcohol, try to cut down. Drink in moderation, which is no more than one drink per day for women or two per day for men.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Choosing a diet that includes between four and nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day and includes whole-grain breads and cereals can reduce your risk of developing cancer. Also, make an effort to limit high-fat foods such as butter, whole milk, fried foods and red meat.
  • Get regular exercise. Being active can reduce your risk of developing cancer. Increase moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, for at least 30 minutes on five or more days each week.
  • Keep your weight in a healthy range. People who are obese have more fat tissue that can produce hormones, such as insulin or estrogen, which may cause cancer cells to grow. Obesity is often measured with body mass index (BMI), the ratio of a person’s weight and height, and waist measurements. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9.
  • Use protective clothing or equipment. If you work in an environment that puts you in contact with harmful chemicals or radiation, always protect yourself with proper clothing and equipment.
  • Get your preventive exams. Preventive care includes screenings, check-ups and routine services that may prevent or detect problems before they advance. For example, child wellness visits are preventive. Some of these exams may be free or covered with low copays with many health insurance plans.