A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What causes cancer? True risks vs. myths

Illustration - Cell phone, pint of beer, grilled sausage - Surprising cancer risksCancer has many possible causes and even more suspected and rumored causes. Some risk factors are avoidable and others are not, which may make it unclear how we can reduce our cancer risk.

Dr. Demet Gokalp Yasar, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist/hematologist, explained what you must avoid to reduce your cancer risk, what’s probably risky and what doesn’t pose a threat.

Avoid these known cancer-causers

Drinking too much alcohol.
The more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time, the greater his or her risk of developing mouth and esophageal cancers. Risk increases when people drink 3.5 drinks per day, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“If you have underlying liver cirrhosis, drinking too much also increases your risk for liver cancer,” Gokalp Yasar said.

Reduce your chances of getting alcohol-associated cancer by limiting your intake to one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.

Read more about absorbing the effects of alcohol.

Exposure to cancer-causing agents at work.
Asbestos is one of the most well-known lung cancer causing substances workers face in the shipbuilding, manufacturing, power and construction industries.

Workers in the textile, cement, printing, rubber and leather industries also are exposed to chemicals that increase their risk for several cancers.

Talk to your employer about safety equipment if you’re exposed to cancer-causing agents at work.

Radon in your home.
Smoking cigarettes isn’t the only cause of lung cancer. A colorless odorless gas called radon can seep into your home and increase your lung cancer risk. The problem affects homes in every state, including Wisconsin.

“Even if your neighbor doesn’t have elevated radon levels, you should still check your home,” Gokalp Yasar said. “The reading may surprise you.”

Professionals can test for radon or you can do it yourself with a kit from the hardware store. Talk to a radon mitigation contractor about the best way to reduce elevated radon levels in your home.

Proceed with caution

Exposure to these agents can slightly increase your cancer risk, so experts recommend using them sparingly or with caution:

  • Processed meats. The World Health Organization added processed meats like bacon, cold cuts and hot dogs to its list of carcinogens last fall. Eating processed meats regularly slightly increases your colon cancer risk, so you should limit your intake to once or twice a month.
  • Meats cooked at high temperatures. Chemicals known to cause DNA damage and increase cancer risk form on meat cooked at high temperatures through methods like grilling. Limit your exposure to these carcinogens by reducing your intake of meat cooked at high temperatures, turning meat continuously and removing charred portions.
  • UV nail lamps. Exposure to UV light is a risk factor for skin cancer, but the amount given off by the lamps used to set gel manicures is much lower than what’s given off by tanning beds. Cancer risk from nail lamp exposure is thought to be low. You can reduce your risk by applying sunscreen around your nails or choosing an air-drying manicure.

Still a safe bet

Research has shown these rumored cancer-causing agents are actually safe:

  • Artificial sweeteners. Studies from the 1970s showed a link between saccharin, known by the brand name Sweet’N Low, and cancer in laboratory animals. Since then, saccharin hasn’t been shown to cause cancer in humans. It is approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, along with many other artificial sweeteners.
  • Cellphones. Cellphones don’t give off enough energy to produce cancer-causing DNA damage.
  • X-rays. Imaging tests that use X-rays expose patients to a very small amount of radiation. “They’re very safe, even multiple times a year,” Gokalp Yasar said.
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