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Surprising Reasons You Could Get Cancer, Say Physicians

Five not-so-obvious causes for cancer.

According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease. While smoking is by far the biggest cause of cancer deaths, there are other factors that are strongly linked to the disease. "As an oncologist, when people ask me if there's a cure for cancer, I say, 'Yes, good health is the best prescription for preventing chronic diseases, including cancer,'" says Lisa C. Richardson, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. "What that means to healthcare providers like me is helping people to have the information they need to make healthy choices where they live, work, learn, and play." Here are five surprising reasons you could get cancer. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.



Female leg stepping on floor scales

Obesity is one of the main causes of cancer in the U.S., linked to a higher risk of 13 types of cancer. "Of the four most common cancers — breast, lung, colon, and prostate — three of them have a pretty clear association with obesity," said Dr. Clifford Hudis, CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology

"A majority of American adults weigh more than recommended – and being overweight or obese puts people at higher risk for a number of cancers – so these findings are a cause for concern," says former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D. "By getting to and keeping a healthy weight, we all can play a role in cancer prevention."

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A Bad Diet

fast food burger
PJ Gal-Szabo/ Unsplash

Research shows that an unhealthy diet is strongly correlated with a higher risk of cancer: One study showed that 80,110 new cancer cases among U.S. adults over 20 were linked to a bad diet.  "This is equivalent to about 5.2% of all invasive cancer cases newly diagnosed among US adults in 2015," says Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tufts University in Boston. "This proportion is comparable to the proportion of cancer burden attributable to alcohol. Low whole-grain consumption was associated with the largest cancer burden in the US, followed by low dairy intake, high processed-meat intake, low vegetable and fruit intake, high red-meat intake and high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages. Previous studies provide strong evidence that a high consumption of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer and a low consumption of whole grains increases the risk of colorectal cancer. However, our study quantified the number and proportion of new cancer cases that are attributable to poor diet at the national level."

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tired businessman with eyeglasses and laptop computer rubbing eyes at office

A growing body of research shows a link between stress and cancer. "The possible role of stress-related factors in the onset and course of cancer is certainly not a new or radical notion," says Mark J. Doolittle,  Ph.D. "As far back as the second century, the Greek physician Galen noted that melancholy women appeared more likely to develop cancer than cheerful ones. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century physicians frequently noted that severe life disruptions and resulting emotional turmoil, despair, and loss of hope seemed to occur before the onset of cancer."

"Chronic stress creates something of a perfect storm where precancerous cells can grow and flourish," says Ankur Parikh, DO, Medical Director of Precision Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Worried about how to manage your stress? There are many tools that can help.

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Not Getting Enough Sleep

Woman awakened lying in bed with her eyes open.

"Studies show increased risks for several types of cancer—including breast, prostate, and thyroid—are linked to disrupted, poor quality sleep," says Michael J Breus, Ph.D. "Disrupted sleep may also contribute to making cancer more aggressive. There's a strong and growing body of research showing that people who work night shifts are at higher risk for developing several types of cancer. Many studies have investigated the effects of nighttime shift work on breast cancer, showing an increase in breast cancer risk comes with night work, as well as nighttime exposure to light. Studies show the risks cancers, including colorectal cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, skin cancer, and lung cancer, may also rise when people adhere to schedules that keep them awake at night."

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Even Moderate Drinking Can Cause Cancer


This may be hard to hear, but there is no level of alcohol consumption that is considered safe. "All drinking involves risk," says Dr. Jürgen Rehm, Senior Scientist, Institute for Mental Health Policy Research and Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at CAMH. "And with alcohol-related cancers, all levels of consumption are associated with some risk. For example, each standard sized glass of wine per day is associated with a 6 per cent higher risk for developing female breast cancer." 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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