What Causes Cancer? These 9 Things May Increase Your Risk

Cancer is a scary disease that’s, unfortunately, the second leading cause of death in the United States. We’re learning more about it every day, but there’s still a lot to understand about what causes cancer and all the ways we can decrease our risk.

There are certain substances we all know are linked to cancer, such as tobacco, processed meats, too much sun exposure, radioactive materials, asbestos, obesity, and poor lifestyle choices. But there are other everyday things we don’t think of as increasing cancer risk. Here are some factors to be aware of.

1. Excessive Sugar Intake

Along with contributing to diabetes and weight gain, sustained high levels of sugar increase the risk of various diseases, including cancer.

According to a 2017 Belgian study, genes that are most cancer-causing might be fueled by sugar intake. If existing cancer cells are triggered by sugar, they may quickly grow and multiply, the scientists behind the study say.

(For some tips on cutting out sugar, see this article.)

2. Smoked and Grilled Meats

Most people look forward to grilling outdoors during the summer months, but we should do so with caution. Muscle meats like chicken, beef, pork, and fish contain two compounds that can be dangerous during grilling:

  • heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Both HCAs and PAHs have been found to alter DNA and possibly increase the risk of cancer. When meats are cooked at high temperatures (especially higher than 300ºF) or for a long period of time, HCAs can form. And if the cooking method creates smoke, such as during pan-frying or grilling over an open flame, PAHs can also form.

3. Salt-cured and Pickled Foods

Foods preserved by salting may be associated with increased risk of throat, stomach, and nasopharyngeal (head and neck) cancers. This includes deli meats, jerky, corned beef, sausages, and anything that has been cured, smoked, pickled, or salted to preserve and enhance flavor.

4. Toxic Chemicals at Work

Certain jobs expose workers to more potentially cancer-causing substances. Those more likely to be around toxic chemicals every day can include:

  • nail salon workers
  • hairdressers working with hair dyes
  • painters
  • sawmill workers or anyone else who cuts and shapes wood
  • aluminum workers
  • miners and construction workers who breathe in silica particles
  • farmers and gardeners exposed to glyphosate, also known as the weed-killer Roundup

5. Polluted Air

It’s important to be aware of what we breathe in from our environments. Air containing smog, soot, and particulates has been linked to cancers of the lungs, bladder, and esophagus.

6. BPA Plastic

BPA stands for bisphenol A. It’s an industrial chemical used in some plastics and resins. When a BPA plastic product is used, the chemical can leach out from cracks or scratches. It’s found in products like water bottles, food containers, metal food cans, and more.

Thankfully, many plastics are now being manufactured without BPA and are labeled as such.

7. Night Shifts

This might sound like an odd addition to the “what causes cancer” list but working overnight can take a toll on the body.

Nighttime work is classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. That’s because working long hours and working overnight for a long period of time can disrupt the body’s natural wake cycles and circadian sleep, which may increase risk.

8. Long-Term Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s way of fighting off sickness, so it can be very advantageous temporarily. But long-term inflammation—also known as chronic inflammation—from disease, infection, and even obesity can cause DNA damage over time. This may contribute to increased cancer risk.

9. Genetics

Lastly, there’s one more factor to know about what causes cancer: genetics. Although we can, and should, take steps to live healthfully and avoid possible carcinogens, some cancer risk is partially genetic.

Some genetic mutations can get passed down from family members, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that can result in breast cancer. These mutations don’t necessarily mean someone will definitely get cancer, but they’re important to know about if you inherited them.

The Bottom Line

While there’s still a lot to know about what causes cancer, we can use awareness of the current knowledge to cut back on possibly harmful substances. Take some time to think about your diet, lifestyle, work habits, and elements in your environment so you can care for your body as fully as possible.

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