Cancer can leave you feeling helpless, the very concept an anxiety-inducing thing to read about. But we're glad you clicked on this story, because the Big C is a health condition in which knowledge truly is power.
New research is constantly emerging about how to prevent cancer and catch it early, when it's most curable. And that extends to risk factors. In recent years, scientists have learned a lot about what raises your risk of developing cancer, in addition to well-known factors like smoking and diet. Eat This, Not That! Health asked experts to reveal the surprising things that affect whether you might get cancer. Here's what they told us. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.
Drinking Hot Beverages
"There may be an increased risk of throat cancer with people eating very hot foods and beverages due to the irritants and heat that can stimulate cell damage," says Thomas Horowitz, MD, of CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. Some studies, including one published in the March 2019 International Journal of Cancer, have linked drinking very hot beverages like coffee or tea with an increased risk of esophageal or throat cancer.
The Rx: Rich in antioxidants, coffee and tea can benefit your overall health, support weight loss and help prevent cancer. Just don't drink them piping-hot.
"Early menstruation—periods before age 12—and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer," says Nancy Elliott, MD, of the Montclair Breast Center in Montclair, New Jersey.
The Rx: Talk with your doctor about what your menstrual history means for your risk of getting breast cancer, and keep all regular appointments for screening. If you have a child and notice signs of puberty before 12, talk to your pediatrician.
"Breast density is determined via mammography, so it's important to get your annual screening to know your personal composition," says Elliott. "Abnormalities are harder to find in patients with dense breasts, because both dense tissue and cancer are white. It's like looking for a snowball in a snowstorm. Additionally, density is a risk factor for cancer — so it's a double whammy."
The Rx: In addition to regular mammograms, "we recommend women with dense breasts get supplementary screening, either an ultrasound or (even better) an MRI," says Elliott.
"An analysis of 53 studies reported that the relative risk of breast cancer increased by 32% for those with who drink 3 servings per day," says Elliott. "Compared to women who don't drink at all, women who have three alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer."
Alcohol also raises the risk of several other cancers. "Drinking an excess of alcohol can increase your risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, bowel, and most commonly, the liver," says Janette Nesheiwat, MD, a family and emergency medicine doctor in New York City. "Alcohol damages cells and is toxic to the organs, increasing the chance of cancerous cells forming."
The Rx: Alcohol may not be a surprising carcinogen, but the amount that constitutes risky drinking might. To reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease, experts recommend moderate alcohol consumption: No more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Working Near Microwave Dishes
No, your kitchen microwave doesn't cause cancer. But microwave transmitters—an entirely different, industrial-strength thing—can raise cancer risk. "One potential cancer risk is working on roofs of buildings where microwave dishes are mounted as transmission devices. One can get exposed to radiation inadvertently when working in front of these, which has been linked to cancer," says Horowitz.
The Rx: If your work puts you in the vicinity of microwave transmitters, talk with your doctor about limiting health risks.
Spending Too Much Time Sitting
"Long stints of time on the couch, in the chair at work, or sitting in your car can increase the risks of some types of cancer," says Cara Pensabene, MD, of EHE Health. "In one study, people who spent more than two hours sitting and watching TV had a 70 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer."
The Rx: Experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (such as running or swimming) or 120 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) each week. If you work a desk job, find ways to be more active during the day, if just standing and walking around more.
Ordering Meat Well Done
Eating charred meats—whether they're burgers, steak or chicken—is a cancer risk. "When certain types of meat are cooked to high temperatures, they develop these chemical compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)," says Pensabene. "These chemicals are mutagenic, according to the National Cancer Institute, which means that they affect DNA and may make you more susceptible to certain types of cancer."
The Rx: When grilling meat, say "when" before it's blackened. You can also take steps to reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds while you're prepping: Before putting meat on the grill, marinate it for half an hour, or zap it in the microwave for a few minutes. And speaking of red meat, read on to discover how much is healthy to eat.
"Many women don't realize pregnancy, or lack thereof, also affects their risk of breast cancer. If your first pregnancy is after age 30, you never breastfed, or you never have a full-term pregnancy, your risk increases," says Elliott. "As women have children later in life, this is something to keep in mind."
The Rx: Talk with your doctor about what your childbearing history means for your breast-cancer risk. Follow their recommendations about screening.
Sleeping With the TV On
"According to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, men who are exposed to more light at night have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer," says Pensabene. "More research is needed, but it's suspected that exposure to artificial light during sleep interferes with melatonin production and the natural sleep cycle, which can have affect antioxidant levels in the body."
The Rx: Try to sleep in darkness, undisturbed by the TV or bright night lights.
Always Skipping Salad
Consuming dietary fiber isn't just about staying regular—it's also a potent cancer fighter. "Eating a diet that is not sufficient in fiber, fruits and green leafy vegetables can possibly lead to colon cancer," says Nesheiwat. "Vitamins and minerals in plant-based foods act as antioxidants to help fight free radicals, or atoms that cause damage to cells. Lack of this healthy protective fiber can increase your risk of free radicals and can ultimately cause cancer."
The Rx: Experts say women should aim to consume 28 grams of fiber per day, and men 35.
Getting Even Occasional Sunburns
"Even getting a sunburn just once every two years can increase your risk of skin cancer nearly threefold, including melanoma skin cancer," says Christopher Zoumalan, MD, a board-certified oculoplastic surgeon based in Beverly Hills, California.
The Rx: "Be your own health advocate by conducting regular self-exams, and if you find anything suspicious, see a board-certified dermatologist," says Zoumalan. "Avoid sunburns, tanning and UV tanning beds. Cover up with clothing when you go outside, including a hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen to your entire body, with an SPF of 30 or higher."
Using Toothpaste With This Ingredient
"Toothpaste or oral products that contain triclosan have been recalled by the FDA for its link to cancer as well as endocrine diseases," says Dr. Rhonda Kalasho of Glo Modern Dentistry in Los Angeles. "I recommend discontinuing the use of any such products that contain that triclosan. It is used to kill bad breath odor and is even found in some facial antibacterial soaps, as well as hand soaps."
The Rx: "In 2016 the FDA restricted consumer products that contain the dangerous chemical, and by 2017 they also restricted the chemical in health care settings," says Kalasho. "However, some of the products could still be out there, so you should remain vigilant."
Eating Oats Sprayed With This Chemical
"Glyphosate is a pesticide sprayed on many crops, including wheat and corn, which we eat as part of a 'healthy' diet," says Terhune. "A study in 2019 measured glyphosate exposure in breakfast cereals and found that every cereal they tested went above the safety limits for children. Glyphosate disrupts our beneficial gut microbiome and impacts our immune system defenses. Glyphosate has now been legally linked in many lawsuits of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients."
The Rx: Opt for organic oats, grains and vegetables whenever possible.
Not Getting Enough Sleep
Why do we feel so rested after a good sleep? That's because the body repairs itself — fixing cellular damage, sweeping toxins out of the brain and ensuring our metabolism stays on track. When you don't get enough shut-eye, all kinds of bodily processes suffer. Poor sleep has been connected to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
The Rx: Experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, say that adults of every age need seven to nine hours of sleep a night—no more, no less.
Working the Night Shift
Researchers believe that sleeping at night replenishes our stores of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body's circadian rhythms and seems to have a role in preventing cancer. Studies have found that people who work at night and sleep during the day have an increased risk of cancer. In 2007 the World Health Organization classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen because of that circadian disruption.
The Rx: If you work nights, talk with your doctor about how it may affect your cancer risk.
Bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages, salami—all those staples of a All-American diet we all grew up with—are now considered as big a cancer risk as cigarettes. Literally. The World Health Organization has named processed meat a Group 1 carcinogen, the same as tobacco, because there's evidence that consuming them regularly can lead to colorectal cancer. How? Researchers believe that nitrites, used as a preservative for processed meat, interact with natural compounds in the food to create a cancer-causing chemical.
The Rx: The American Institute for Cancer Research says you should not regularly consume processed meat including ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and sausages, as any amount raises cancer risk. "AICR recommends avoiding bacon and other processed meats, saving them for special occasions," says the organization.
Even eating red meat that isn't processed—including steak, burgers, lamb and pork—has been associated with an increased cancer risk.
The Rx: The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat consumption to no more than 18 ounces per week.
Having CT Scans While Young
A CT scan is like a chest Xray on steroids: CTs use radiation to create 3D images of the body, and they're useful in detecting issues that were previously only discoverable with exploratory surgery. But a 2013 Australian study, which looked at the medical histories of 11 million people, found having one CT scan before the age of 20 raised a person's lifetime risk for cancer by 24 percent. The higher the radiation exposure and the younger the person, the greater the risk.
The Rx: Experts urge caution about those findings. CT technology has improved over time, and most doctors prescribe them only when absolutely necessary. But if you're being asked to undergo multiple CTs, it's reasonable to ask if low- or no-radiation scans like ultrasound or MRI can be used instead.
In a study published in the journal European Urology, researchers looked at the self-reported ejaculation frequency of 1,000 men. They found that men who reported more than 21 ejaculations per month had a 31 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than men who ejaculated four to seven times a month.
The Rx: First, remember that correlation is not causation. Science hasn't conclusively proven that infrequent ejaculation is a prostate cancer risk, although researchers theorize that ejaculating may clear the prostate of toxins and irritants. And most men would argue that upping that frequency definitely wouldn't hurt.
A Common STD
The sexually transmitted infection trichomoniasis is very common. About 3.7 million Americans have the infection, caused by the protozoan T. vaginalis, and only 30 percent will develop symptoms. More concerning: A 2014 study found that T. vaginalis secretes a protein that promotes inflammation in the prostate and stokes the growth of both benign and cancerous prostate cells. In a 2009 study, 25 percent of men diagnosed with prostate cancer tested positive for T. vaginalis infection and were more likely to have an aggressive form of the disease.
The Rx: Although the science hasn't found a conclusive link, if you're sexually active and may have been exposed to trichomoniasis, talk to your doctor about your risk factors and the benefits of regular STI testing.
Heartburn, or acid reflux—in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing burning or pain in the chest or throat—is often considered a simple nuisance. But over time, stomach acid can damage sensitive tissue, leading to a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus. That could develop into esophageal cancer.
The Rx: If you suffer from regular heartburn, talk to your doctor. They might recommend a prescription, lifestyle changes or further testing.
Coffee may be an underrated cancer fighter, thanks to its high antioxidant content. In a meta-analysis of studies published in the journal BMC Cancer, regular coffee consumption was linked to a reduction in risk of at least 11 types of cancer, including breast, colon, pancreatic, esophageal and prostate. And a November 2015 study in Circulation found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in the risk of death overall, with larger reductions among those who drank more.
The Rx: Drink up. Just try not to drink caffeinated beverages after noon, as it'll affect your sleep.
You may know that drinking too many sugary beverages, like soda, increases your risk for obesity and diabetes. But a March 2019 study published in the journal Circulation found an association between sugary drink consumption and cancer. Each 12-ounce serving of sugary drinks consumed was associated with a 7 percent increased risk of death from any cause, and a 5 percent increased risk for death from cancer.
The Rx: Skip sugary beverages, and shun those with artificial sweeteners as well—they come with health risks of their own. Hydrate with tap water, seltzers, or homemade fruit-infused H2O.
Some studies have linked the use of hypnotic (a.k.a. sleep-inducing) drugs with an increased risk of cancer and death. Researchers haven't found the exact connection, but why risk it?
The Rx: There are several sleep-hygiene strategies you can follow before requesting a prescription for sleeping pills. They include meditation, relaxation techniques, and avoiding screens for the hour before bed. If you're having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about them.
Ignoring Your Family History
If your parents had a particular illness, there's no guarantee you'll get it too. But there is a genetic component to certain conditions like heart disease, diabetes and particular cancers.
The Rx: Make sure your doctor knows about your family history of serious illness, and ask if any screening tests are warranted.
Not Getting Colon Cancer Screening
What's the primary risk factor for colon cancer? Age: Your risk of the disease rises significantly after age 50. When detected early (as localized polyps), colon cancer is one of the easiest forms of cancer to cure.
The Rx: The American Cancer Society recommends that you get your first colonoscopy at age 45, and repeat it every 10 years. Your doctor may have different recommendations based on your family background and personal medical history.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 79 million American men and women are infected with HPV (human papillomavirus), the most common sexually transmitted infection. HPV can lead to genital warts and cancer in both men and women—including cancers of the cervix, penis, anus and throat.
The Rx: HPV is so common that most adults are exposed by the time they're in their 20s. But because six different strains of HPV cause most HPV-related cancers—and the FDA has recently cleared the HPV vaccine up to age 45—getting vaccinated might be beneficial if you're sexually active. If you're concerned about HPV-related cancer, talk with your doctor.
Uncircumcised Sexual Partners
"Partners of uncircumcised men have a higher risk of cervical cancer," says Horowitz. Why? According to a 2017 review of studies published in the Lancet, researchers found that circumcised men were less likely to contract HPV (human papillomavirus), which causes most cases of cervical cancer.
The Rx: HPV is so common that most adults contract it by their early 20s. But some forms can cause cancer, so it's important to talk with your doctor about your risk factors and regular testing.
The Epstein-Barr Virus
"One really lesser-known thing that can contribute specifically to Hodgkin's Disease is the Epstein-Barr (or mono) virus," says Kylene Terhune, FDNP, CPT, a nutritionist and certified personal trainer who herself had Hodgkin's. "This is a virus that in most people lays dormant and inactive after experiencing an acute bout of mono, but in some it can become reactivated under stress, such as food sensitivities or emotional or physical stress."
The Rx: If you've had mono or EBV, talk with your doctor about how to stay healthy. "Someone with chronic EBV should become aware of how to manage it and support their body, since it's been associated with up to 40% of Hodgkin's cases," says Terhune.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
For decades it was prescribed regularly to older women to ease symptoms of menopause like hot flashes and decreased sexual desire. Today, experts say hormone replacement therapy is associated with a higher risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer.
The Rx: "Well-conducted studies have led many doctors to conclude that the risks of MHT often outweigh the benefits," says the American Cancer Society. But it has issued no guidelines about menopausal hormone therapy, stating that the decision should be up to a woman and her doctor after discussing the risks and benefits. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.