Health AreasNon-communicable Diseases

A wake-up call: exploring the cancer risk factors

Great strides have been made in understanding cancer. The fight against cancer wears many facets;

It’s about supporting the fighters

Admiring the survivors

Honoring the taken

And never giving up hope.

It’s also about understanding the risk factors that trigger any form of cancer.

Certain cancers continue to increase in different parts of the world. This can partly be attributed to the fact that we are living longer and the changing patterns of cancer risk factors.

This week we explore risk factors that increase your chances of getting cancer. And did you know that the World Health Organisation estimates that between 30% and 50% of cancer deaths could be prevented by modifying or avoiding key risk factors?

Well, Dr James Mbogo from the University of Alexandria in Egypt classifies the cancer risk factors into modifiable and non-modifiable ones. Modifiable risk factors means that you can take measures to change them whereas the non-modifiable ones cannot be changed.

The non-modifiable risk factors include;

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Family History
  • Race

On the other hand, the modifiable ones are;

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol intake
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Diet
  • Unsafe sex
  • Sun protection

According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco smoking has been known to cause cancer of the lung, oesophagus, larynx (voice box), mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix whereas a link has been found between overweight and obesity to many types of cancer such as oesophagus, colorectum, breast, endometrium and kidney. A genetic link has been associated with cancers like breast, prostate and colon.

On the same note, increased alcohol used has been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectum and breast. Outdoor air pollution has been found as the culprit in some lung cancer cases whereas the presence of cancer-causing agents at the workplace has led to the development of certain types of cancers among colleagues. The WHO notes that mesothelioma cancer that affects the outer lining of the lung or chest cavity is to a large extent caused by work-related exposure to asbestos.

Exposure to radiation has been linked to increasing cancers cases hence the need to be careful on unnecessary and unintended radiation doses for patients. Sadly in most cases, including Kenya, cancer is often diagnosed at a late-stage of disease hence resulting in lower survival and potentially more illness and higher costs of treatment.


Dr James Mbogo, University of Alexandria in Egypt, notes that watching on the modifiable risk factors makes a difference.

According to Prof Ronald Wasike, a consultant breast surgeon at Aga Khan University hospital, the major factors that increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer include:

  • A personal history of breast cancer.
  • Two or more close relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.
  • A relative (mother, sister, grandmother, or aunt) on either side of family with breast cancer before age 50 years or before menopause.
  • Inherited changes – Breast cancer related genes (called BRCA1/BRACA2).
  • Previous radiation therapy to the chest/neck area

In his book, ‘Breast Cancer; what we all need to know,’ Prof Wasike adds other factors that may increase the chances of breast cancer but to a lesser extent include:

  • Beginning menstruation at an early age earlier than 12 years.
  • Going through menopause at a late age, more than 50 years.
  • Having no children.
  • Not breast feeding for 6 months.
  • Having your first pregnancy after age 30 years.
  • Gaining weight particularly post menopause.
  • Drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day.

The World Health Organisation advises that keeping off the key risk factors below can significantly reduce the burden of cancer. They are;

  • Tobacco use including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Unhealthy diet with low fruit and vegetable intake
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Alcohol use
  • Sexually transmitted HPV-infection
  • Infection by hepatitis or other carcinogenic infections
  • Ionizing and ultraviolet radiation
  • Urban air pollution
  • Indoor smoke from household use of solid fuels.

So, what next? C.J Stein and G.A Colditz from the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention observe that behaviour change is possible and they offer a few gems with great potential for cancer prevention.

  • Get at least 30 min of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.
  • Avoid tobacco use, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco product
  • Maintain a healthy weight within the BMI
  • Eat a healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Limit alcohol to less than one drink per day for women or less than two drinks per day for men.
  • Limit your number of sexual partners, and always use condoms
  • Avoid excess sun exposure

So, there you have it!! There is something you can do to prevent cancer.

An in instances where you cannot, and you get a cancer diagnosis, remember that life has two rules:

#1 Never quit

#2 Always remember rule # 1.


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