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Risk Factors of Developing Cancer

There is strong evidence that an individual’s risk of developing cancer can be substantially reduced by healthy behavior: not using tobacco, getting sufficient physical activity, eating healthy foods in moderation, and participating in cancer screening according to recommended guidelines. If we can effectively promote healthy behaviors, much of the suffering and death from cancer can be prevented or reduced.

Michigan Medicine doctor Diane Harper talks about human papillomavirus or HPV. Dr. Harper is a family medicine physician scientist and the physician director of the Rogel Cancer Center’s community outreach program. She is internationally recognized as a clinical research expert in HPV associated diseases, their prevention, early detection and treatment for the prevention of cancer.


Smoking causes about 30 percent of all U.S. deaths from cancer. Avoiding tobacco use is the single most important step Americans can take to reduce the cancer burden in this country. 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 and the recently enacted Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. This Act signed into law on June 22, 2009, provides the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with broad authority to regulate tobacco product advertising. This legislation removes most federal preemption constraints on the ability of states and communities to restrict the time, manner, and place of tobacco advertising and promotions.

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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: Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

Physical Activity and Food Intake

Increasing evidence has proven that physical activity helps prevent cancer. Physical activity at work or during leisure-time is linked to a 30 percent lower risk of getting colon cancer. Both vigorous and moderate levels of physical activity appear to reduce this risk. Sadly 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. In late 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans that recommend at least 1 hour of physical activity every day for children and adolescents and 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity for adults each week. This was a slight change from former recommendations, which suggested engaging in at least 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity for most (5 or more) days of the 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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