8 general cancer risks factors  

The basic explanation of cancer is when abnormal or damaged cells divide uncontrollably and destroy healthy cells. When the cancer cells are caught early, they can be removed or treated before spreading throughout the body.

Our chances of developing cancer center on different types of risk factors – each involving the health and replication of our cells.

“When you look at what causes cancer, it seems always to circle back to an over-arching cause or factor,” said Jomel Labayog, MD, hematologist and medical oncologist with OSF HealthCare. “Some factors are beyond our control, and others can take years before the cells malfunction.”

Major risk factors for cancer:

Old age

Unfortunately, getting older puts us at risk of getting cancer.

“Just about every cell in our body is replaced every seven to 10 years. Our bodies contain roughly 37.2 trillion cells,” Dr. Labayog said. “The longer we’re alive, the more chance our dividing cells may malfunction, especially when exposed to years of carcinogens and bad lifestyle choices.”

Genetics – family history of cancer

A family history of cancer, chronic diseases and cardiovascular disease may be out of our control, but it gives us a heads up on what to keep an eye on.

“A lot of people ask me if cancer is genetic. Family members can pass on hereditary cells predisposed to malfunction. It’s common cause of some cancers,” he said. “Hereditary cancer does have a positive side. We can do genetic testing and take corrective action before cancer develops. Lifestyle factors, medications and even surgery can correct faulty genes.”


Both smoke and smokeless tobacco put dangerous toxins in our bodies. Cigarettes have at least 70 chemicals, and chewing tobacco has at least 25 chemicals known to cause cancer.

“If you use tobacco, stop. It’s the single lifestyle change you can make to avoid cancer,” Dr. Labayog said. “It’s difficult to quit but worth it. If you or a loved one need help, ask your primary care provider for programs and support.”


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, being overweight or having obesity increases your risk of getting 13 types of cancer. These cancers make up 40% of all those diagnosed with cancer in the United States annually.

“Obesity is a sign of general poor health. When we carry excess weight, we tax our organs and systems. Fat cells trap toxins, stopping our bodies from cleaning house,” he said.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all alcoholic beverages, including red and white wine, beer and liquor, are linked to cancer.

“When our bodies break down alcohol, it turns into acetaldehyde that damages our DNA and stops our body from repairing the damage,” Dr. Labayog said. “The damaged cells can begin growing out of control. The more you drink, the higher your risk for cancer.”

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Viral infections

There are several viruses, like HPV, linked to cancer.

“A virus can take over our cells in order to reproduce by inserting its DNA or RNA into our cells,” Dr. Labayog said. “The DNA or RNA can alter the cell, causing it to malfunction, resulting in cancer cells growing out of control.”

Carcinogenic chemicals

Specific, carcinogenic chemicals, like industrial solvents and weed killers, can enter our bloodstream through our skin or lungs, attacking cells and altering cell division.

“Known carcinogens are labeled as dangerous. Always take precaution and follow safety instructions when handling any chemical,” Dr. Labayog said. “The risk is amplified the more you are exposed to chemicals and may take years to develop. Use natural or mild chemicals if possible, and wear appropriate safety gear.”

Radiation exposure

Radiation comes in different forms – medical procedures, industrial settings, wireless devices and sun exposure, to name a few. The danger with radiation is, you don’t always know if you’ve been exposed.

Currently, there is no indication that cellphone use causes cancer.

“Radiation exposure can alter our cell’s division instructions or outright destroy cells,” Dr. Labayog said. “Always try to avoid unnecessary radiation exposure. The effects can be cumulative over the years.”

Drawing your conclusions

Almost all cancer risks are due to an interruption in healthy cell reproduction or gene mutations. To stay healthy, you should learn if you have a high risk because those are your primary risk factors for developing cancer.

“No matter what you are ingesting, handling or exposed to, you should always ask how this will affect your body,” he said. “Almost everything can negatively affect our bodies. Stay close to nature and keep an eye on hereditary issues to avoid health risks.”


Last Updated: April 4, 2024

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About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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Categories: Cancer