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Risk Factors for Cancer

While everyone is at risk for cancer, some people or groups are at greater risk than others. Age is the greatest risk factor for cancer; 78 percent of cancers are diagnosed at age 55 and older. People who use tobacco, drink heavily, are physically inactive, eat a poor diet, are regularly exposed to carcinogens in their occupation or have prolonged and unprotected exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet radiation are all at increased risk for certain cancers. Among racial/ethnic groups:
  • African Americans had higher incidence rates than whites for cervical, colon and rectum; esophageal, kidney and renal pelvis; larynx; liver and intrahepatic bile duct; lung and bronchial; multiple myeloma; oral cavity and pharynx; pancreatic; prostate; and stomach cancers.
  • Whites had higher incidence rates than African Americans for brain and other central nervous system; Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; leukemia; melanoma of the skin; thyroid; and urinary bladder cancers.
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders in Ohio had lower incidence rates than other races for most cancer sites/types, but did have a higher incidence of liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancer than white or African Americans.
Poverty, insurance status, genetics, health risk behavior and culture all play a role in the burden of cancer disparities. While everyone should follow cancer prevention and screening guidelines, those at highest risk for specific cancers should be particularly attentive to screening recommendations and to symptoms of these cancers and seek prompt medical attention if they occur.

For More Information

Alcohol: Most people know that heavy alcohol use can cause health problems. But many people may not be aware that alcohol use can increase their risk of cancer.

Tobacco: Besides lung cancer, tobacco use also increases the risk for cancers of the mouth, lips, nasal cavity (nose) and sinuses, larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), esophagus (swallowing tube), stomach, pancreas, kidney, bladder, uterus, cervix, colon/rectum, ovary (mucinous), and acute myeloid leukemia.

Nutrition and Physical Activity: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of several cancers, including those of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas, and kidney, among others.

Ultraviolet Exposure and Sun Safety: Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. More than 2 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are found in this country each year.

Additional Risk Factors: Find out more about some of the other factors that may affect your risk for cancer -- such as your genes and cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) in the environment -- and learn about the things you can do that may help protect you and your family.

Early Detection: Some cancers can be found early, before they have had a chance to grow and spread.


Last Reviewed: 7/3/12