The Big C lives up to its nickname: Cancer is now the second most common cause of death in the U.S. Nearly 600,000 Americans die from it every year. That means that more than 1,600 Americans die of cancer every day. With such a high death toll, you’re likely wondering: What am I doing that might raise my risk?
The answer is: Probably a lot, unfortunately. Cancer can ravage your body like an invading army as toxic cell-killers grow relentlessly into rapidly morphing tumors. Some cancers are out of our control, spurred into being by genetic defects and certain predispositions—but others can be caused by our actions and our environment. Live dangerously, you up the risk.
We are here to help you lower it. Read on to discover our science-backed ways to protect yourself from cancer before it strikes. Share this story with your family, or friends, or co-workers, and together we can lower the statistics—and count our blessings instead.
1. You Eat Too Much Sugar
Pour some sugar on me—just don’t pour too much in you! Consuming too much sugar can actively damage your cells, increasing your risk of developing cancer. And that’s not all. New research shows that sugar may actually fuel tumor growth in the body, and the reason why is not so surprising: Cancer is sweet on sugar as fuel.
Recommendation: Curb consumption of copious amounts of sugar. Start by cutting out added sugars, which are hidden in everything from bread to pasta sauce. A book like David Zinczenko’s Zero Sugar Diet, which swaps in whole foods and fiber for added sugars, shows you can stave off abdominal fat, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, liver disease, fatigue, and tooth decay.
2. You Are Sexually Intimate Before You’ve Had Your HPV Vaccine
HPV, or Human papillomavirus, is a family of sexually transmitted viruses which could be totally innocuous—or, if a certain strain, can cause cancer. Thanks to outspoken celebrities—like Michael Douglas, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Marcia Cross—cancers connected to HPV have become less stigmatized, but they still pose a risk to nearly anyone who is sexually active. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 40 different types of HPV that can be transmitted via sexual contact. Of these 40 strains, many resolve themselves and are essentially harmless; other strains, however, can cause cervical, anal, vaginal, and penile cancers. And condom use does not necessarily prevent the spread of this virus. Here’s what can: Getting the HPV vaccine.
Recommendation: Be smart. Get vaccinated. And make sure that your kids, grandkids (yes, the CDC recommends that all kids get the HPV vaccine before they become sexually active!) and your friend who is going through a midlife crisis get vaccinated too!
3. You Drink Scalding Hot Tea
A hot cup of tea sounds like a soothing way to have a calm moment, and drinking green tea may even reduce your risk of prostate, breast, and stomach cancer. But. Slow. Down. Make sure you let your beverage cool off first before drinking it. Why? It’s been found that drinking tea that’s extremely hot may actually increase the risk of cancer of the esophagus, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Cancer. The results of this study strengthen the existing evidence from other studies on the link between consuming very hot tea and esophageal cancer. It’s thought that the extreme heat of the tea could be damaging to the lining of the esophagus, particularly if compounded over time.
Recommendation: Save yourself the scalding and wait until your tea has cooled down before taking a sip!
4. You Sit Still
To avoid cancer, one of the worst things you can do is…nothing. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the most significant modern health risks around, and sitting for extended periods of time can increase your risk of cancer. The study found that sitting six or more hours a day during off-work hours was associated with a 19 percent increase in death overall, as compared to sitting for less than three hours a day. So get moving! The JAMA published a study showing a link between exercise and reduced risk of cancer.
Recommendation: Get up and walk around or stretch every hour to break up long periods of sitting. And when not at the office, keep in mind that the more physical activity you get, the lower the risk of some of the most common cancers.
5. You Eat Processed Foods
Successfully created by food scientists to captivate your taste buds, it turns out there’s an unappetizing reality skulking in your processed foods. A French study published by BMJ found that consuming ultra-processed foods was correlated with a number of health disorders such as cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases, as well as cancer. More research needs to be done, but study results point to the dangers of a diet increasingly comprised of highly processed foods, which “may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades,” warn the researchers.
6. You Inhale Wood Dust
Love to tinker with a saw and hammer? Find making things out of wood meditative? Just make sure to take precautions with how much sawdust you breathe in. Recent studies have shown that saw-mill workers and carpenters who regularly breathe in lots of dust from cutting and sanding wood have a higher risk of developing cancers of the sinus and nasal cavity than the average person.
Recommendation: Attention aspiring Tim “The Toolman” Taylors: wear a mask to help keep yourself from breathing in too much sawdust.
7. You Were Infected With Certain Bacteria
Small things can have huge impacts on our health. Case in point: bacteria. H. pylori has coexisted with humans for thousands of years and infection with it is very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 2 out of 3 people worldwide harbor the bacterium.
H. pylori does not make most infected people sick, but it is a significant risk factor for peptic ulcers and is largely responsible for the majority of ulcers affecting the stomach and upper small intestine. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified H. pylori as a carcinogen in humans, despite some conflicting study results at that time. Since then, however, scientists have increasingly accepted that colonization of the stomach with H. pylori is a significant cause of gastric cancer and of gastric lymphoma.
Recommendation: Testing for H.pylori can help mitigate cancer risk. If you are found to be positive, you will be treated with antibiotics and acid-reducing medication. Check with your doctor to see if you should be tested.
8. You Eat Ham, Bacon, Sausage
Hot dogs are not so hot for your health. A brand-new study by the BMJ says that processed red meats like bacon, ham, and some types of sausage can contribute to increased risk of cancer and mortality. This type of meat is treated to preserve or flavor it, by smoking, salting, curing, and more, which may be why these types of meats have been shown to be carcinogens.
Processing aside, red meat, in and of itself, has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and there may be evidence also linking it to pancreatic and prostate cancers, though more research is being done.
Recommendation: Want to decrease your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent? Then skip a hot dog or two slices of bacon a day. Instead go for a healthy plant-based option. Consider the hot Italian “sausages” by Beyond Meat—a recent hit in supermarkets.
9. You Are Using Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets
Clean laundry may actually be pretty dirty. Created to soften fabric fibers and impart a “clean laundry” smell, these products may deliver a bouquet of toxic chemicals. The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health studied different fabric softeners, and found that some fabric softener sheets do just that. Among the most harmful ingredients found: benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.
10. You Are Not Breastfeeding
You’re about to have a baby, and you’re wondering if you should breastfeed or not. Perhaps this might tip the scales. Turns out that breastfeeding babies can reduce the risk of breast cancer. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that women diagnosed with breast cancer who had ever breastfed had a lower risk of cancer recurring.
Recommendation: For optimum cancer protection, aim to nurse for a year.
11. You Are Using Certain Cosmetics and Personal Care Products
It’s time to start reading beauty product labels as closely as you read food labels. Not all ingredients are healthy. Some top carcinogens to look out for include DEA (banned by the European Union), phthalates, and formaldehyde.
Recommendation: For a full list of what to watch out for, check out EWG’s Skin Deep Database, so you can research toxic chemicals that might be in your beauty and personal care products.
12. You Consume Too Much Salt
Too much salt can assault your body. Research has shown strong evidence that certain high-salt foods may cause stomach cancer—from salt-preserved vegetables to salted meats and fish. And the more you eat these foods, the higher the risk of developing stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is the third biggest cancer killer and the fifth most common cancer in the world, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. Some research suggests that excessive salt consumption damages the stomach lining, causing lesions, which, if not healed well, may give rise to stomach cancer. Given that Americans consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium per day, despite the FDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending no more than 2,300 mg—about a teaspoon—per we might be talking about you.
Recommendation: Stick to 2,300 mg daily, and to tally it up (and avoid hidden sodium), check the total amount of sodium listed on the nutrition facts label. These salt-healthy tips will help you beat bloat, improve heart health, and keep life spicy!
13. You Are Using Regular Nail Polish
About two million gallons of nail polish are sold every year in the United States. But there’s something off-color potentially hiding in them: carcinogens. Most conventional polishes contain formaldehyde, a nail-hardening agent that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says can increase cancer risk. Also lurking in the bottle of polish is butyl acetate, a solvent, and ethyl methacrylate, the main ingredient in acrylic nails. Exposure to these carcinogenic chemicals can also lead to central nervous system damage and reproductive problems.
Recommendation: No need to suffer for beauty, thanks to non-toxic nail polish options, which have all the color and none of the carcinogens. Here’s a great guide from the Sierra Club to find the right one for you!
14. You Are Taking Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, is a medication with many benefits along with some considerable risks, cancer among them. These medications contain female hormones to replace the ones the body no longer produces post-menopause, and are often used to treat common bothersome symptoms of menopause. HRT can also help prevent bone loss and signs of osteoporosis in women who have gone through menopause. However, with the benefits come some risks. The Cancer Center and National Cancer Institute, among many others, report that there is an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer with continued hormone therapy. These risks depend on various factors.
Recommendation: For best results, talk to your doctor about your personal symptoms to see if some form of hormone therapy is a good treatment option for you. Make sure to keep the dialogue going with your doctor throughout your menopausal years.
15. You Are Using Foam Cups or Plates
Fun fact: your to-go coffee cup or taco container is not made of styrofoam. What you call “styrofoam” is actually polystyrene, a petroleum-based plastic foam. Polystyrene contains the chemical styrene, which has been linked to cancer, nervous system disorders, vision and hearing loss, impaired cognitive function, and more.
Recommendation: Avoid foam cups and plates for holding hot beverages and food takeout containers made of foam; and the number 6 printed on plastic products—which don’t look like foam, but contain styrene.
16. You Are Using Certain Types of Plastic
You are exposed to many plastic products every day—from water bottles to spatulas to toys. And while most of these products are safe, research suggests some plastic by-products are more dangerous than others, like BPA (bisphenol A). BPA may cause cancer in humans, along with a host of other serious issues, with accumulated build-up in the body, and is found in many plastic products, like the linings of food and formula cans, dental sealants, and on paper cashier receipts to stabilize the ink. BPA is an estrogen-mimicking industrial chemical that can be a powerful hormone disruptor. Women are at higher risk for detrimental effects from BPA because estrogen can increase the risk of developing breast cancer. Children and infants are also a vulnerable group because they are far more sensitive to chemical exposure and its adverse effects, even at far lower doses.
The good news is that The Food and Drug Administration or FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups seven years ago. The bad news is that does not apply to the use of BPA in other plastic containers.
Recommendation: Want to live your healthiest life? Limit possible BPA exposure by carrying your own glass, steel, or ceramic water bottle—that clearly state that they are BPA-free; and reduce how much canned food you consume.
17. You Are Being Exposed to Smoke From Barbeque
Summertime is synonymous with backyard barbeques, but those simple summer cookouts may pack more heat than you think. If you are one of those people who like to observe the grill master, you may be absorbing an increased amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs, which are known to cause DNA mutations, respiratory disease, and even lung cancer. A 2018 study published in Environmental Science & Technology showed that carcinogens in barbeque smoke are actually more likely to enter our bodies through our skin as opposed to our lungs.
Recommendation: The good news is that wearing clothing helps as it lowers the level of PAHs absorbed through your skin, so cover up that bathing suit when sidling up next to the grill.
18. You Have Breast Implants
Breast implants may increase your risk of a rare type of lymphoma called anaplastic large cell lymphoma, or ALCL, a 2018 study found. Lymphomas are not a type of breast cancer—they are a type of cancer which begins in the infection-fighting cells of our immune system, called lymphocytes. Women who had breast implants that were textured as opposed to smooth-surfaced were at increased risk of ALCL according to researchers. The overall risk of this cancer among women with implants is low: about 1 in 7,000 women who get implants will go on to develop this rare type of lymphoma by the time she turns 75. The exact cause for the link is not yet known, but scientists think it’s possible that the breast implants trigger increased inflammation in breast tissue, which may lead to cancer over time.
Recommendation: To put it plainly, putting foreign objects into your body—from silicone breast implants to metals to ceramics—can lead to increased risk of cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. If you’re thinking about getting breast implants, talk to your doctor about what the safest ones might be for you.
19. You Are Being Obese or Overweight
Overweight or obese? According to the National Cancer Institute, having a higher body weight has been shown to increase your risk of more than a dozen types of cancer—including cancers of the colon, breast, thyroid, kidney, pancreas, and esophagus. While the exact reason is not yet known, obese people tend to have chronic low-level inflammation in their bodies, which over time may cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer. As well, overweight and obese people are more likely than their normal-weight counterparts to have other health conditions linked to chronic local inflammation, which are risk factors for certain cancers.
Recommendation: There are things you can do to reduce your risk like eating a healthy diet low in sugar and processed foods and getting enough exercise. Both will help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your cancer risk—and according to Harvard Health, have the added benefit of boosting your mood. Start now with these effective weight loss tricks you probably haven’t tried before.
20. You Are Being Exposed to Air Pollution
Smoggy, polluted air, and the chemical particulates in it, can be carcinogenic. Back in 1770s London, doctors began to notice that many chimney sweepers were developing scrotal cancers. Further studies found a link between the grueling chimney work and higher rates of cancer. And the trend of recognizing pollution as a carcinogen keeps growing. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, reports that outdoor air pollution can cause lung cancer and is also linked to an increased risk for bladder cancer. These findings build on previous studies in which the IARC classified numerous components of outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic, such as diesel engine exhaust, solvents, metals, and dust. But this is the first time that air pollution, as a whole, has been classified as a carcinogen.
Recommendation: When possible, keep your exposure to highly polluted areas to a minimum. If that’s not possible, start wearing a face mask to lessen your exposure.
21. You Live Near a Disaster Site
Researchers have studied New York City firefighters, first responders, business people, and students who returned to the Financial District in the days and weeks after 9/11 and have found consistently higher rates of about 70 different types of cancer, including breast, cervical, colon, and lung cancers. More than 9,300 firefighters, cops, office employees, and children living or working near downtown Manhattan on 9/11 have cancer, according to the federal World Trade Center Health Program. And an additional 420 survivors died from the disease.
Recommendation: While we cannot control whether we end up in a disaster area, we can learn from those who have. If possible, stay away for as long as you are able, and if you need to be near a disaster area, wear a face mask to minimize exposure—this is a case where less is more.