Risk Factors

A team of researchers found that tobacco use, poor diet, physical inactivity, and alcohol consumption were among the leading causes of death; combined, the first three accounted for more than one-third of all deaths in the United States. In addition to mortality, these unhealthy lifestyle behaviors impose significant burdens on society, such as disability, diminished quality of life, and increased health care costs.


Tobacco use is a known risk factor for 15 types of cancer. Decreased tobacco use has reduced cancer deaths among men by at least 40% from 1993 to 2003. Although much has been accomplished, a considerable amount of work remains to be done. Recently, smoking rates among adults and high school students have leveled off, possibly because of increased tobacco industry spending on marketing and promotion.

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In addition to tobacco, heavy use of alcohol is a risk factor for head and neck cancers. To better understand the risks, and for resources to help you quit drinking and/or smoking, please see our Head and Neck Cancer Prevention web page.

Physical Activity and Food Intake

Increasing evidence has accumulated showing that physical activity helps prevent cancer, and yet 38% of adults in the United States do not engage in any physical activity in their leisure time. Only 1 in 8 adults engages in vigorous physical activity in their leisure time for the recommended 5 times a week. Obesity and physical inactivity may account for 25 to 30% of several major cancers, including colon, post-menopausal breast, endometrial, kidney, and cancer of the esophagus.

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Cancer Screening: Breast, Cervical, Colon, Lung and Prostate

Breast cancer deaths have been decreasing since 1990, with breast cancer screening playing a significant role. Unfortunately, the percentage of women who report that they have had a mammogram in the past 2 years has leveled off, remaining at the same level since 2000. If we can increase the number of women who have mammograms, more women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier stage, which dramatically increases their chances of surviving cancer. Learn more on our Breast Cancer Detection and Prevention web page.

Of all the gynecologic cancers, only cervical cancer has proven prevention and screening tools: the Pap test. To learn more about cervical cancer screening and gynecologic pre-cancerous conditions, please see the Prevention & Screening page in our section about cervical cancer<.

Although colorectal cancer screening not only results in earlier detection, but also can actually prevent cancer from developing, less than half of Americans age 50 and older are current for colorectal cancer screening. Learn more on our Colon (Colorectal) Cancer Prevention and Colonoscopy web page.

New guidelines have been drafted suggesting that lung cancer screening for people at very high risk can help reduce the number of deaths from this disease. To learn more, please see our Lung Cancer Screening Guide.

There are several ways to screen for prostate cancer and the recommendations for when these screenings should begin vary, depending on a number of factors. Visit our Prostate Cancer Screening and Detection web page for more information.

Source: American Cancer Society The Importance of Behavior in Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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