Unfortunately, it is not always easy to establish a link between occupation and cancer risk. A small percentage of chemicals used in commerce have been tested for their potential to cause cancer. Further, the risk of developing cancer is influenced by a number of factors that are not clearly understood.
General Risk Factors for Cancer
According to the National Institute for Occupation Health and Safety (NIOSH), a person’s risk for developing cancer may be influenced by a combination of the following factors:
Personal characteristics (eg, age, sex, race)
Family history of cancer
Lifestyle factors and personal habits (eg, diet, smoking, alcohol consumption)
Certain medical conditions
Exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment
Exposure to cancer-causing agents in the workplace
These factors may act together or in sequence to cause cancer.
Establishing a Link
Sometimes, a number of people in a workplace will develop cancer within a relatively short period of time. However, this does not necessarily indicate that there is a cancer risk in the workplace. Cancer is a common disease, affecting over a million Americans each year.
In an effort to identify the role of possible occupational factors and cancer, scientists investigate cancer clusters. Clusters are defined as an unusual concentration of cancer cases in a defined area or time, according to NIOSH. Clusters may have a common cause or may be the coincidental occurrence of unrelated causes.
When evaluating a cancer cluster in the workplace, scientists tend to look for the following:
Several cases of the same type of cancer, especially if it is not common in the general population
The presence of a known or suspected cancer-causing agent, and, the occurrence of types of cancers that have been linked with exposures to these agents in other settings
Past exposures to possible cancer-causing agents in the workplace (often difficult to document)
Investigating cancer clusters poses many challenges for researchers. It is often difficult to make a clear connection between cancer and environmental or workplace factors.
Cancers Associated With Occupational Exposures
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers this table of substances or types of work that have been associated with the development of cancer:
Identifying occupational risks for cancer is an ongoing process. Since it is often difficult to know if we are being exposed to cancer risks in the workplace, the best we can do is use the knowledge already at hand, and control the risk factors that we know we can control.
For example, we are largely in control of diet, smoking, alcohol use, and exposure to known cancer-causing agents. We can also get regular medical check-ups and follow the national guidelines regarding cancer screening tests.
Blettner M, Grosche B, Zeeb H. Occupational cancer risk in pilots and flight attendants: current epidemiological knowledge.
Radiat Environ Biophys
. 1998; 37:75-80.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, Occupational Cancer website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer/. Accessed on May 16, 2010.
Gawande A. The cancer-cluster myth.
The New Yorker. 1999:34-37.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care
provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a
substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER
IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the
advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to
starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a