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What Causes Cancer?

By HERWriter
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Cancer is the name used for a group of over 100 diseases that result when cells malfunction and grow out of control. Research into the causes of cancer has determined that there are many reasons people can get cancer. Knowing what causes cancer can help healthcare providers develop ways to treat and prevent the disease.

Genetics is a specific area of biology that studies how characteristics and diseases are inherited or passed down in a family. Certain types of cancer can be passed down in a family line. But the number of cancers that can be linked to inheritance is small.

If you know that someone in your direct family line (linked by blood, not just by marriage) has or had cancer, tell your health care provider. If genetic tests exist for that type of cancer, you might be able to find out if you are at higher risk because someone in your family has the disease.

Carcinogens are substances that research shows can lead to cancer. These harmful substances can take many forms and may be found in your home or workplace.

A few commonly known carcinogens include:

Asbestos – This mineral takes the form of fibers that were once commonly used in floor and ceiling tiles, roofing shingles, and as insulation in homes, schools, and workplaces.

Tobacco – Using tobacco is the cause of nearly 1 out of 5 deaths in the United States and is the largest single cause of cancer deaths in this country. Cancer resulting from tobacco use is also the most preventable cause of death.

Benzene – This chemical is a colorless, flammable liquid that is commonly used as a solvent and to make other chemicals. Benzene occurs naturally in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. It was once also used as an additive in gasoline.

Radiation – Sufficiently high doses of specific kinds of radiation known as iodizing radiation can cause cancer. This type of radiation occurs naturally in our solar system. Man-made sources include X-rays and other medical tests. Nuclear weapons testing released this kind of radiation.

Sun and Skin
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. In fact, the number of skin cancers diagnosed each year is greater than the number of all other types of cancer combined. Ultraviolet (UV) rays found in sunlight can damage cells of the skin. Being out in the sun increases exposure to UV rays which can eventually cause genetic changes inside the cells which is what causes skin cancer to develop. Other sources of UV rays include tanning beds and sunlamps.

Physical Activity and Diet
Lifestyle choices including diet and exercise may not actually cause cancer, but they can contribute to cancer risks. Being overweight can cause your body to produce more hormones that can stimulate the growth of cancer. In addition to eating a healthy diet, being active can help control your weight. Exercise can also help balance your hormone levels and help your immune system work more effectively.

There are also many risk factors than can increase the odds that you will get cancer, including age, some viruses such as HIV or Hepatitis B and C, and hormones. Some people are more sensitive than others to known risk factors for cancer. If you are concerned about your cancer risks, talk to your healthcare provider.


American Cancer Society. What Causes Cancer?. Web. October 9, 2011.

National Cancer Institute: What You Need to Know About Cancer. Risk Factors. Web. October 9, 2011.

MedicineNet.com. Cancer Risk Factors. Web. October 9, 2011.

National Cancer Institute. Cancer Causes and Risk Factors. Web. October 9, 2011.

Reviewed October 13, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.