Definition of Cancer Risk Factor

The circumstances that may increase an individual’s chance for developing cancer. Cancer risk is a combination of hereditary, environmental, viral, bacterial, immunologic, and lifestyle factors that alter cell structure and function.

Age is the most significant single risk factor for cancer, with most cancer developing in people age 50 and older.

This reflects current thinking that most cancer results from cumulative damage to cellular DNA, which causes changes in cells as they divide.

Significant Cancer Risk Factors

Gender is a significant risk factor for specific cancers. For example, bladder cancer is three times more common in men than women, and only about 1 percent of breast cancer occurs in men.

Ovarian and endometrial cancers are uniquely women’s cancers, and testicular cancer and prostate cancer are uniquely men’s cancers.

Liver cancer and pancreatic cancer are also more common in men. Hereditary genetic factors influence the risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and colorectal cancer.

The most significant mutable (changeable) risk factor for cancer is cigarette smoking, which accounts for 85 percent of lung cancer, 60 percent of bladder cancer, and about 30 percent of other cancers collectively.

Excessive alcohol consumption and exposure to environmental carcinogens (substances that cause cancer) are also preventable risks for cancer.

Infectious agents are emerging as major risk factors for certain cancers. Researchers have already linked certain cancers with specific infections. More than 90 percent of women who have cervical cancer also have human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

About 80 percent of people who have stomach cancer test positive for the presence of helicobacter pylori, which causes a low-grade bacterial infection in the stomach.

In Western cultures, Kaposi’s sarcoma occurs nearly exclusively in people who have HIV/AIDS.

Cancer Risk Factors in Relation to Type of Cancer

Risk FactorType of Cancer
age 50 years and olderall cancers
alcohol consumptionstomach cancerliver cancerpancreatic cancer
cigarette smokingcancers of the lung, bladder, kidney, stomach, breast, prostate, colon, pancreas; acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
Epstein-Barr virusBurkitt’s lymphoma
gender: femalebreast cancerendometrial cancercervical cancer
gender: malebladder cancerprostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, cancer of the penistesticular cancer, liver cancer
helicobacter pylori infectionstomach cancer, gastric lymphoma
hepatitis b virus/hepatitis c virusliver cancer
HIV/AIDSKaposi’s sarcoma, lymphoma
human herpes virus-8 (HHV-8)Kaposi’s sarcoma
human papillomavirus (hpv) infectioncervical cancer, cancer of the penis, vaginal cancer, anal cancer, cancer of the vulva
human T-lymphotropic virus-1 (HTLV-1)adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL)
inflammatory bowel disease (ibd)colorectal cancer
intestinal polypcolorectal cancer
personal or family history of cancerall, though notably breast, ovarian, and colorectal cancers
Schistosoma haematobium parasitic infectionbladder cancer
sun exposureskin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma
tobacco use other than smokingoral cancer (lips, tongue, other structures of the mouth)


Cancer Risk Factors – Definition and List
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