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Risk Factors, Prevention, & Diagnosis

What risk factors increase your chances of getting cancer?

There are several things that increase your risk of getting cancer.

  • A family history of cancer—some cancers are influenced by your genetics

  • Exposure to certain chemicals, certain toxins and poisons in the environment, and radiation

  • An unbalanced diet and excess consumption of alcohol

  • Obesity

  • Age

  • Sunburn, especially many sunburns over time

  • Some viruses

What can you do to reduce your risks of cancer?

Cancer is very common—roughly 40% of American adults will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. It's one of the leading causes of death in the United States and around the world.  Although there is no absolute way to prevent cancer, there are many things you can do to help reduce your risks of cancer:

  • Stop smoking

  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight

  • Exercise

  • Eat healthy foods

  • Limit your alcohol consumption to an average of two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women

  • Avoid sunburn and prolonged sun exposure

The National Cancer Institute provides an overview of the research on cancer prevention and on current studies that are being done to determine new ways of preventing cancer, or decreasing the likelihood that you'll get it.

How is cancer diagnosed?

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, or discovered, the better. When doctors find cancer earlier, they have the best chance to treat it aggressively and eliminate it thoroughly.

Since many symptoms of cancer don't appear till the cancer has gotten serious, it can be difficult to catch it early. To catch cancer early, you should make sure your doctor screens you for cancer regularly. A **cancer screening** is just a thorough check for cancer. There are many guidelines about types of cancer screenings, who should receive them, and their benefits and drawbacks.

After your screening, your doctor may decide to pursue other options to better determine whether or not you have cancer. There are several ways that doctors diagnose cancer. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam and consider your family history, then may choose to perform one of the following diagnostic tests:

Lab tests

By testing your blood or other fluids, doctors can look for the presence of certain elements associated with cancer. These lab tests won't prove conclusively that you have cancer, but can still provide important evidence. Moreover, lab tests are relatively easy and inexpensive to conduct, so they are often used before biopsy or imaging to help determine whether these more-expensive tests are necessary.


There are several ways that doctors can look at your tumor to help them figure out whether or not you have cancer. These ways include CT scans, bone scans, ultrasounds, MRI, x-rays, PET scans, and nuclear scans. Depending on where your tumor is located and other factors that the doctor thinks are important, you may undergo one of these scans. In every case your doctor is trying to determine whether or not the tumor is cancerous. These tests are helpful because they don't require any surgical elements and are "non-invasive."


A biopsy procedure is when the doctor collects tissue sample(s) from the area that might be cancerous.   The type of cancer cells will determine whether the doctor may remove all or just part of the suspected area.  Depending on the location of the cancer cells that the doctor is worried about, the biopsy may be conducted with a needle, with a laparoscope (a small camera that helps doctors see the tumor), or by performing open surgery, where doctors create a larger opening in the skin and remove some tissue directly. 

In each case, doctors will ensure that you have anesthesia so you experience as little pain and discomfort as possible.  There are two types of anesthesia: local and general.  In local anesthesia, the patient is awake but will not feel the pain, while in general anesthesia, the patient will be unconscious and will not feel or remember the procedure.

  • For needle biopsies, oftentimes only local anesthetic is necessary.  

  • For laparoscopic biopsies, local or general anesthesia may be given.

  • For surgical biopsies, general anesthesia is used.

After the biopsy, the doctor will have the tissue sample(s) sent to a pathologist or cytologist to determine whether they are malignant (cancer) or benign (not cancer).