What causes cancer?
Very few cancers have a single known cause. Most cancers seem to be caused by a complex mix of many risk factors, but sometimes cancer develops in people who don’t have any risk factors. A risk factor is any substance or condition that increases the risk of developing cancer. Cancer risk factors may play different roles in starting cancer and helping it grow. Examples of risk factors for cancer include:
- getting older
- not protecting yourself from the sun
- having certain genetic changes
- being overweight or obese
- not having a healthy diet
- not getting enough physical activity
- drinking alcohol
- coming into contact with harmful chemicals at home or at work
- having certain types of infections
Your cancer risk @(Model.HeadingTag)>
Cancer risk refers to a person’s chance of developing cancer. Having information about cancer risk can help you make informed choices about your health.
In general, the more often and the longer you are in contact with a risk factor, the greater the chance that cancer will develop.
It can take many years for cancer to develop after being around a risk factor. Cancer usually develops after being around many risk factors over time. People may be in contact with several risk factors in the course of their daily lives.
Some people have a higher risk of developing cancer because of certain risk factors. But even if a person has one or more risk factors, it is impossible to know exactly how much these factors may contribute to developing cancer later in life. Being high risk doesn’t mean that cancer will develop.
Even people who have a low risk may still develop cancer. Low risk does not mean that a person will not get cancer. It means that there is less chance of getting cancer. It isn’t always clear why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t.
Studying cancer and what causes it @(Model.HeadingTag)>
Over the years, researchers have developed a better understanding of how cancers develop and grow.
They do this by studying people who are in contact with or have been in contact with certain substances or exposures (such as pesticides or exposure to the sun), or people who have certain conditions (such as
Researchers also study how substances and exposures affect cells and other living organisms. When there is enough scientific evidence to prove that a certain substance or exposure causes cancer, experts will call it a carcinogen. In many cases there isn’t enough information to know for sure whether or not something causes cancer. These substances or exposures may be called probable or possible carcinogens, depending on how much scientific evidence is available or the type of evidence that exists. And sometimes experts can’t say whether a substance is linked to cancer.
There is a lot of misleading and unproven information on the Internet and in the news about what causes cancer or doesn’t cause it. It’s important that you get information from credible organizations that have experts who review the scientific evidence. These include the International Agency for Cancer Research, the US National Toxicology Program and the World Cancer Research Fund.
Experts at the Canadian Cancer Society also make recommendations about cancer-related issues. We can help you find credible information about substances or exposures linked to cancer and help you understand the research.
Cancer risk assessment @(Model.HeadingTag)>
People are often concerned about their personal risk of developing cancer. Risk assessment looks at information about a person (such as their age, health history, family history, lifestyle and diet choices) to estimate their cancer risk. Knowing your risk factors can help you make personal health choices to reduce your risk of developing certain cancers. Doctors use a variety of risk assessment tools to estimate a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Your doctor may recommend genetic testing and counselling if they think you may have a higher risk of developing cancer because of a known family cancer syndrome or a family history of cancer.
Understanding your risk of cancer can also help you decide if you may benefit from:
- starting cancer screening at an earlier age or being screened more often than the general public
- having surgery or taking medicine to help lower your cancer risk
How to reduce your cancer risk @(Model.HeadingTag)>
About 4 in 10 cancer cases can be prevented through healthy living and policies that protect the public. Risk can be increased or decreased by lifestyle choices and the kind of environment a person lives in and works in.
Learn about what you can do to reduce cancer risk.
Expert review and references
American Cancer Society. Does This Cause Cancer?. 2014: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/does-this-cause-cancer.html.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Understanding Cancer Risk. 2015: http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/prevention-and-healthy-living/understanding-cancer-risk.
Beeghly-Fadiel A, Malen Fair A . Epidemiology. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B, (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2018: 3: 43-77.
Cancer Research UK. Can Cancer Be Prevented?. Cancer Research UK; 2016: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/can-cancer-be-prevented.
Goodman SN and Samet JM . Cause and cancer epidemiology. Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF Jr. (Eds.). Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2006: Chapter 1: pp 3-9.
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs, Volumes 1-117. 2016: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/List_of_Classifications.pdf.
National Cancer Institute. Risk Factors for Cancer. 2015: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk.
National Toxicology Program . 14th Report on Carcinogens . Department of Health and Human Services ; 2016 .