Take Active Steps To Reduce Your Cancer Risk


Many factors have an impact on your risk of developing cancer.

Some things — for example, race, gender and genetics — are out of your control. Lifestyle choices are another matter. It’s well known that tanning, drinking heavily and — most of all — smoking and other tobacco use can greatly increase your risk.

But other factors in your day-to-day life can also affect your chances of getting cancer. In recognition of National Cancer Control Month, we present some lesser-known risks you may not know about.

Not Brushing Your Teeth

Regular brushing and flossing are part of good hygiene, and they can also help protect against cancer. New research reveals that older women with periodontal (gum) disease have a 14% increased risk of cancer. “There are all kinds of pathogens (germs) in your mouth,” explains Kirsten Moysich, PhD, MS, Department of Cancer Prevention and Control, who co-authored the study. “And there are a lot of ways those pathogens can go into circulation. With cancer of the esophagus, for example, the germs can be swallowed and reach the target tissue directly, and they can cause damage down the line.”

The study showed that periodontal disease was most strongly linked to cancer of the esophagus. (Breast and lung were among the other associated cancers.) The study was also the first to show increased risk of gallbladder cancer in people with periodontal disease.

Not Getting Enough Exercise

A recent study from Roswell Park found that inactivity was shown to increase kidney cancer risk by 77% and bladder cancer risk by 73%. The data add to the growing body of evidence that physical inactivity may be an important and independent risk factor for cancer. An inactive lifestyle is believed to impact colorectal cancers as well.

“You don’t have to run marathons to reduce your cancer risk, but you have to do something — even small adjustments like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking around the block a couple of times on your lunch hour or parking the car far away from the store when you go to the supermarket,” says Dr. Moysich.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes each week of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes each week of vigorous physical activity as a way to generate significant, lasting health benefits.

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Where You Live

Asbestos, lead and radon are three hazardous substances you never want to find in your home. Having your home tested for them is key to reducing your family’s cancer risk.

Many people may not know whether asbestos is in their home. It’s no longer used in building materials, but it can still be found in older homes and buildings. Exposure to asbestos is associated with mesothelioma, a type of cancer that affects the mesothelium, a thin layer of tissue that covers most internal organs, including your lungs, stomach and heart.

Work with a contractor to determine whether any asbestos was used in the construction of your home. If it was, you should avoid hammering or drilling into the walls. Asbestos is safe when intact but becomes harmful when disturbed, because the fibers are released into the air.

Lead-laced tap water usually comes from the corrosion of older fixtures. When water sits in lead pipes for several hours, lead can leach into the water supply. Take a proactive approach to protect yourself and your family from contamination — especially if your home was built before 1986.

There is no safe level of lead, and exposure is especially dangerous for babies, young children and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning on becoming pregnant. The American Cancer Society lists lead compounds as a probable human carcinogen (cause of cancer), with a link to kidney, brain and lung cancer, among others. It also increases the risk of stroke and high blood pressure. Fortunately, skin can't absorb lead from water, so lead-laced water is safe for bathing as long as it's not swallowed.

The only way to know if your tap water is safe is to have it tested. Start with your local water supplier, because some will come to your home and test your water for free. You can also buy a lead testing kit from most home-improvement stores and perform your own test.

If left untreated, radon can be hazardous to your family’s health. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Where does radon come from? It occurs naturally when uranium decays in rocks and soil. The gas rises through the ground and enters homes through cracks in floors, walls and foundations or around sump pumps. Some areas of Western New York have exceptionally high levels of radon.

How can you find out if there are high levels of radon on your home? Test kits are available for $11 from the New York State Department of Health, or you may purchase one from a hardware store. If testing shows dangerous levels of radon in your home, there are various ways to fix the situation, such as sealing your basement floor and walls or through active soil depressurization, which involves installing a pipe to carry any radon gas from the basement to the outside of the house.

Processed Meats

The recommendation to limit your intake of preserved meat is not new. There has been evidence for several decades that eating processed red meat is associated with an increased risk of gastrointestinal (GI) cancer, especially colorectal cancer. Processed meat is meat that is not fresh. It has been preserved or transformed in some way. Any number of methods, including curing and smoking or adding preservatives, can be used. Examples of processed meats include hot dogs, salami, bacon and sausage.

Eating the occasional steak or burger doesn’t guarantee a cancer diagnosis is in your future. Evidence points to an 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer for those who consume about 50 mg. of processed meat — or about two slices of bacon — each day. Less-frequent consumption can be assumed to carry less risk.

Overall, limiting your consumption of processed meats is probably not a bad idea. Try substituting other fresh meats, such as chicken or fish, for red and processed meats throughout the week.

To find out what cancer screenings are right for you, based on age, gender, family history and lifestyle, visit our screening page.