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Signs You're Developing Cancer According to the CDC

This is what the CDC considers ‘high risk’ for cancer
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Cancer is a leading cause of death in the US, second only to heart disease—but with early detection, many cancers can be treated. "What I tell my patients to keep an eye out for is anything that's new and it's persistent in getting worse over a period of two weeks, and if that happens, to give us a call to let us know what's going on and we'll have you come in for an appointment," says Brittany L. Bychkovsky, MD, MSc. "So, if you've strained your knee running and it's now better, I don't need to know about it. If you have a stuffy nose and a sore throat, and it's getting better, I also don't need to know about it, but if you aren't feeling well and something is going on that's persistent and getting worse over a period of two weeks, come in and be seen." Here are five signs you're at high risk of cancer, according to the CDC. 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

Female doctor measuring waist of overweight woman with measuring tape in clinic

According to the CDC, being overweight or obese is linked to a higher risk of developing 13 types of cancer. "Excess fat tissue causes an overproduction of several blood and tissue factors that can initiate or promote growth of tumors, such as estrogens, testosterone, inflammation, insulin, and factors that cause growth of blood vessels that can feed tumors," says Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, a cancer prevention researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "Both men and women have increased risks for several cancers if they are overweight or obese. We found that weight loss, as little as 5% to 10% loss of starting weight, significantly reduced blood levels of estrogens, testosterone, insulin, inflammation-related biomarkers and markers of angiogenesis."



Hand stubbed out cigarette in a transparent ashtray on wooden table

No surprise here—the CDC links smoking tobacco with causing cancer anywhere on the body. "There are thousands of chemicals in cigarette smoke," says cancer epidemiologist Anthony J. Alberg, PhD, MPH. "Of those, hundreds are known to be harmful toxins, and more than 65 are known to cause cancer. With this degree of exposure to so many toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, it is not surprising that cigarette smoking would be identified as a cause of many types of cancer."


Drinking Too Much Alcohol

refuse alcohol

According to the CDC, drinking alcohol raises the risk of getting six kinds of cancer. "It is important that people are made fully aware of the potential harms of alcohol so that they may make informed decisions about alcohol consumption," says assistant professor Kara P. Wiseman of the University of Virginia School of Medicine's Department of Public Health Sciences and UVA Cancer Center. "By identifying ways to support consistent discussion about alcohol between providers and patients, and developing messaging about the potential harms of alcohol, we may be able to begin to address an important cancer risk factor."



Gathered relatives in decorated house dinner table mom embrace little girl boy children listen to congratulations other communicate talk tell speak

The CDC recommends talking to your doctor if cancer runs in the family. "It's true that some people are born with a significantly higher chance to develop a cancer versus someone else, and I think this also ties back into what we've been discussing in regard to screening, because there are these wonderful population screening guidelines, but they're not appropriate for everyone," says cancer genetic counselor Jill Stopfer, MS, LGC. "We look for people who have significant family history. So, are there parents with cancer, siblings, children? Even more extended relatives sometimes provide the clues that we need to see a pattern, so just in hereditary cancer risk, and sometimes it's the presence of a rare cancer all by itself such as a sarcoma or another form of rare cancer that indicates genetic testing."


HPV and Cancer

no smoking sign

Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes several kinds of cancer, the CDC warns. "Classically, heavy drinking and smoking were considered the primary risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer," says Melissa Young, MD, a Yale Medicine radiation oncologist who treats head and neck cancers through Smilow Cancer Hospital. "However, over the last several decades, the number of alcohol- and tobacco-associated cancers has declined, while there has been a marked increase in oropharyngeal cancers associated with oral HPV infection. Now, 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are associated with HPV."


Signs You May Have Cancer

Man lying on bed at home, high fever and coughing.

"There are more than 100 different types of cancer. Most cancers are named for the organ or type of cell in which they start—for example, lung cancer begins in the lung and laryngeal cancer begins in the larynx (voice box)," says the CDC. "Symptoms can include:

  • A thickening or lump in any part of the body
  • Weight loss or gain with no known reason
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Hoarseness or a cough that does not go away
  • A hard time swallowing
  • Discomfort after eating
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Feeling weak or very tired."
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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