Reduce your risk of developing cancer

  • Published
  • By By Greg Chadwick, Air Force Materiel Command Health & Wellness Team

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. About one of every three Americans will develop some form of malignancy during his or her lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our genes, lifestyle, and the environment around us work together to increase or decrease our risk of getting cancer. Each person’s cancer risk is made up of a combination of these factors. 

A cancer risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing cancer; a cancer protective factor is anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer. Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk, but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

It is usually not possible to know why one person develops cancer and another doesn’t. But research has shown that certain risk factors may increase a person’s chances of getting cancer.

The risk of developing cancer increases with advancing age; 80% of all cancers in the United States are diagnosed in people 55 years of age or older. Certain behaviors and other modifiable factors also increase risk, such as tobacco use, having excess body weight, drinking alcohol, sunlight, and having an unhealthy diet.

You can lower your risk of getting many common kinds of cancer by making healthy choices. Screening tests can find some cancer early, when treatment works best. Vaccines can help prevent several kinds of cancer. To reduce your risk of developing cancer:

Protect your skin from the sun. Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US, with more than 5 million new cases annually. Most skin cancers are a result of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. To lower the risk of skin cancer, limit being exposed to UV rays.

  • Avoid the sun when UV rays are strongest, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

- Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen, with a sun protection factor of at least 30.

- Wear clothes to protect the skin, such as long sleeves and long pants.

- Cover the head with a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, neck, and ears.

- Put on wrap-around sunglasses that have UV protection for the eyes and the skin around them.

- Avoid sunbathing, tanning beds, and sun lamps.

- Check skin regularly to spot any new growths or areas, and report them to a doctor right away.

Avoid tobacco in all its forms, including exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco use remains the most preventable cause of cancer death. Cigarette smoking increases the risk of at least 12 different cancers, with 30% of all cancer deaths in the US, including 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths, attributed to smoking. Using other tobacco products such as cigars or pipes also increase the risk for lung cancer. After smoking, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that forms in rocks, soil, and water. It cannot be seen, tasted, or smelled. When radon gets into homes or buildings through cracks or holes, it can get trapped and build up in the air inside. People who live in these homes breathe in high radon levels. Over long periods of time, radon can cause lung cancer. Get your home tested for radon. Nearly one out of every 15 homes in the US has high radon levels according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Limit alcohol consumption. An estimated 6% of cancer cases are attributed to alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol is linked to cancers of the mouth, breast, liver, esophagus, colon, and others. Cancer risk increases with alcohol volume, so limit alcoholic beverage consumption to one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men. 

Eat a healthy diet. Approximately 4% of all cancer cases are attributed to dietary factors. Diets with an emphasis on a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish or poultry, and fewer red and processed meats are associated with lower risk of cancer.

Maintain a healthy body weight. An estimated 5% of cancers in men and 11% in women are attributed to excess bodyweight. Maintaining a healthy weight might lower the risk of various types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, prostate, lung, colon and kidney. Being overweight causes the body to make and circulate more estrogen and insulin, hormones that can stimulate cancer growth. One of the best ways to get an idea if you are at a healthy weight is to check your body mass index, a score based on the relationship between your height and weight. Most people are at normal weight if their BMI is below 25.

Be physically active. Approximately 3% of cancer cases are attributed to physical inactivity. Being physically active might lower the risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. Exercise fights obesity and lowers levels of hormones like estrogen and insulin, which have been linked to cancer.

Get immunized (HPV & Hepatitis vaccines). Certain viruses have been linked to cancer, but are preventable through vaccination. In the U.S., approximately one-third of liver cancers are linked to the hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus. The hepatitis B vaccine can help lower liver cancer risk. Talk to your physician about age recommendations for the human papillomavirus vaccine. The HPV vaccine helps prevent most cervical cancers and several other kinds of cancer.

Get regular screenings. Getting screening tests regularly may find breast, cervical, and colon cancers early, when treatment is likely to work best.

For more information on to how prevent cancer, visit or contact your local Civilian Health Promotion Services team. Comprehensive information on cancer prevention can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at