5 Cancer Risks You Can Easily Avoid

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cancer patients. Teach your children early how they can lessen several major cancer risks. 

“About 50% of deaths from adult cancers in this country could be prevented if people made lifestyle changes,” says Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society. “If we start early and prevent kids from smoking and encourage a healthy diet and physically active lifestyle, that figure could go even higher.” 

Here are 5 things you can avoid to reduce the risk of cancer for you and your kids.

Cancer risk #1: Tobacco 

Think today’s youths have gotten the message about the dangers of tobacco as a risk of cancer? Think again. 

In 2016, more than 20% of high-school students used tobacco products, according according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Even trying smoking can be dangerous, because addiction develops quickly in adolescents. A 2007 University of Massachusetts study found that 10% of 217 sixth-graders who smoked became dependent on nicotine within two days of taking their first puff. Half became dependent by the time they had smoked seven cigarettes per month. 

What’s more, according to the American Cancer Society, the likelihood of developing lung and other cancers increases with smoking duration, so those who start smoking at younger ages and continue to light up are at the highest risk for death. 

If your kids don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Kids who don’t pick up cigarettes may be turning to other forms of tobacco, the Cancer Society cautions. An estimated 10%-20% of college students and 10%-17% of adolescents use tobacco in water pipes or hookahs. 

What to do right now: 

Check out online tobacco prevention tools from credible, kid-friendly sites like KidsHealth, run by the nonprofit Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media.

“Parents shouldn’t model the behavior they want their child to avoid,” says Eric Werner, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ section on hematology/oncology.

Cancer risk #2: Tanning

It’s easy enough to slather young kids in sunscreen, dress them in sun-protective clothing and tell them to play in the shade. But persuading girls and young women to protect themselves from harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays – another risk of cancer – is a different matter. 

Melanoma is increasing faster in females 15-29 years old than in males of the same age group, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. A 2008 study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that rates of the disease have risen 50% among young women in the U.S. since 1980. In 2004, 13.9 per 100,000 young women were diagnosed with skin cancer, versus 7.7 per 100,000 young men. 

Yet plenty of teen girls and young women remain tanning devotees, according to a 2011 survey by the Dermatology Academy. The majority, 81%, said they tanned outdoors frequently or occasionally. And according to a 2013 CDC study, about 29% of white, non-Hispanic teenage girls in the U.S. used an indoor tanning bed or sunlamp in the past year. 

What to do right now:

To talk some sense into a daughter hell-bent on looking like Kim Kardashian, appeal to her vanity. Telling young women about the toll that tanning takes on their appearance is surprisingly effective, according to a 2010 Northwestern University study of 430 college-age women who frequently visited tanning salons.

After the women were given booklets that detailed how ultraviolet rays destroy collagen in the skin and encourage wrinkles, their indoor tanning visits dropped 35% during the next six months. Some stopped tanning altogether.

Cancer risk #3: Obesity 

Obesity and physical inactivity are second to tobacco use as cancer risk factors, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk for 12 different cancers in women and 13 in men, Doyle adds, including cancers of the endometrium, colon, kidney and breast in postmenopausal women. 

“We’ve seen cancer rates decline since the early ’90s, but if we don’t get childhood obesity under control, that decline may not continue,” Doyle says.

Start thinking about your kids’ weight now – not later. Obesity in adolescence is associated with increased risk of severe obesity in adulthood, according to a 2010 University of North Carolina study of nearly 9,000 people enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. About 40% of the obese adolescents became severely obese by age 30, leading researchers to conclude that intervention might be most effective during childhood, before the worst weight gain occurs. 

What to do right now:

Create an action plan to get your kids moving. The American Cancer Society recommends that kids and teens get at least 30 minutes – but shoot for 45-60 – of moderate to vigorous physical activity five or more days of the week. 

Need help inspiring your kids? Take some advice from the former first lady. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is dedicated to solving childhood obesity and offers simple steps to get kids exercising and eating right.

Cancer risk #4: Cell phone use

Concerned about your children’s cell phone habits?

In May 2011, the WHO added cell phones, which emit low levels of radiation, to its list of possible carcinogens. But scientists don’t know yet how cell phone usage affects developing brains of children because only adults were studied. 

There’s no need to panic over cell phones and cancer just yet, says Otis Webb Brawley, MD, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society.

For one, the WHO’s decision was based on a review of past epidemiological studies that showed correlation, but not causation. 

In simple English, it identified factors associated with cancer, but didn’t prove that those factors caused cancer.

Some studies have found an association between heavy cell phone use and glioma and meningioma, two common types of brain tumors, but many other studies have not.According to the American Cancer Society, of the 24 studies that looked at the possible connection between cell phones and brain tumors, most didn’t find that people with tumors report greater cell phone use than people without tumors.

In 2010, Interphone, the largest (more than 5,000 people in 13 countries) and longest (a decade) multinational study on the issue, coordinated by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, found no overall increase in risk of glioma or meningioma for cell phone users.

Moreover, Interphone researchers found no evidence among most users that risk increased as the number of calls, call time, or years of use increased.

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, did report that the small proportion of people who spent what was considered years ago to be a large amount of time – more than 1,640 hours or at least 30 minutes a day – on cell phones had a 40% increased risk of glioma. 

But certain flaws in the study prompted the study’s researchers to rule the finding inconclusive.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration says, “The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.”Because there’s no data measuring the effects from a lifetime of use, Dr. Brawley offers the following suggestions for parents worried about cell phone and cancer risks: 

What to do right now: 

  • Limit cell phone use for children 10 or younger – though a two-minute call once a week to Grandma will probably be fine, he says.
  • Have your child or teen wear a headset. The amount of radiation absorbed decreases the farther a person holds the phone from the body, so this step may reduce the risk. But don’t use a Bluetooth. It emits radiation too.
  • Encourage your teens to text or use speakerphone more frequently because it’ll keep the cell phone away from their heads.

Cancer risk #5: The HPV virus 

The CDC currently recommends that 11- and 12-year-old girls receive one of two vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, that protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical and anogenital cancers. The CDC also recommends catch-up vaccinations for girls and women ages 13-26. 

But only 23% of white women, 8% of black women and 6% of Hispanic women actually got the shot, according to a 2011 study published in Public Health Nursing. 

What to do right now:

If finances are an issue, ask your physician about the federal government’s Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which provides eligible children all recommended vaccines for just a small processing fee. 

Both Merck and GlaxoSmithKline offer patient assistance programs that help eligible girls and women get a free HPV vaccine. 

Also, make sure your daughter gets her Pap smears on schedule. Girls and teens should get regular Pap smears within three years after they start having sex, and no later than age 21. The test, which collects cells from the cervix, can detect changes that may lead to cervical cancer and help to stop the disease in its tracks, says Eric Tai, MD, a medical officer in the CDC’s division of cancer prevention and control. 

Have a son? Ask his pediatrician about Gardasil – which also protects against genital warts, a form of HPV. Gardasil has also been tested and approved for use in boys 11-21 years old. 

Last Updated: August 24, 2017