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Habits Secretly Increasing Your Cancer Risk, Say Physicians

These five things are raising your risk of cancer.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease, with 1,708,921 new cancer cases reported in 2018 and 599,265 deaths. "We will always need good treatments," says Timothy Rebbeck, Ph.D. "But we can't treat our way out of this problem. In order to make a dent in a public health sense, we must prevent cancer." Here are five habits increasing your cancer risk. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Being Overweight

Nutritionist inspecting a woman's waist using a measuring tape to prescribe a weight loss diet

The stats don't lie: The CDC warns that people who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of getting 13 types of cancer, which make up an alarming 40% of all diagnosed cancers in the U.S. every year. "A key thing to understand is that fat cells change the environment inside the body," says Dr. Panagiota Mitrou, Director of Research Funding & Science External Relations at World Cancer Research Fund International. "They release a range of chemicals that can make cells near them act differently leading to cells potentially becoming cancerous. This process happens in various ways in different parts of the body, leading to different types of cancer developing."


An Unhealthy Diet

Man eating pizza having a takeaway at home relaxing resting

A healthy, balanced diet—such as the Mediterranean diet—can help lower your risk of cancer. "Food can help prevent many of the chronic conditions that increase your risk of cancer," says cancer dietitian Joseph Dowdell, RDN, LD. "Genetics and other health conditions can impact cancer prevalence as well, but those are usually out of our control. Obesity is something we can control through food and exercise… Food is powerful. Some use it for comfort. Others use it for fuel or to be social. So it's important to still embrace those things but in the healthiest way possible. You can eat that piece of cake on your birthday or indulge a little during a barbecue. Having an occasional treat is perfectly fine. It's when those practices happen daily that negative long-term effects come into play."

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girl in casual clothes smoking an electronic cigarette

According to the Cleveland Clinic, smokers are three times more likely to get bladder cancer than non-smokers. "These carcinogens leave the body through the urinary tract," says urologist Robert Abouassaly, MD. "When urine is in contact with the bladder for many hours at a time, the bladder can be exposed to very high concentrations of toxins from cigarette smoke. People are often surprised by the link. Efforts toward smoking cessation are really critical to try to prevent this disease."

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Too Much Sitting

Woman sitting on bed looking at phone bored and in a bad mood

Doctors warn that spending too much time sitting—even for people who work out every day—is hazardous for your health. "We know that lack of activity can lead to obesity and that obesity is a risk factor for certain types of cancer. That is why we always tell our patients how important it is to stay active," says Dale Shepard, MD, Hematology and Oncology. "Some people think it's OK to sit all day if they are going to work out for an hour-and-a-half when they get home. But working out does not negate the fact that they just sat for nine hours. Periods of inactivity will still put you at risk. What you do throughout your entire day will impact your health. It's time to re-think how we orient our work day so we can get in at least five minutes of activity every hour without decreasing productivity."

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drinking cocktails

Alcohol raises the risk for cancer—and not just for heavy drinkers. "Alcohol that we drink contains ethanol, which has been found to be carcinogenic. When we drink ethanol, it is converted by an enzyme in our cells into a toxic substance, acetaldehyde," says Lucy Eccles, International Communications Officer at World Cancer Research Fund. "Usually acetaldehyde is converted by other enzymes (known as aldehyde dehydrogenase) into acetate, which is useful for the cells to make energy. However, when there is a large amount of alcohol entering the body, there is more acetaldehyde than the enzymes can process, causing a buildup of acetaldehyde. This can be dangerous because acetaldehyde can directly damage DNA, affecting how the DNA functions and its ability to repair itself, which can lead to the cells becoming cancerous. So the more we drink, the more toxic acetaldehyde builds up, the more DNA damage occurs and the cancer risk increases. But it's not just heavy drinkers who are at risk. Bacteria found in the mouth are particularly good at converting ethanol into the toxic acetaldehyde, which can give you a build up of acetaldehyde even if you've only been drinking smaller amounts." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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