Cancer prevention – seven risk factors you should pay attention to


Cancer prevention refers to any action taken to lower your chances of getting cancer. Remember – it’s your body and your life that you’re taking steps to keep as healthy as possible. Here’s what you need to know to do just this.

Listen to top health experts explore the ins and outs of lifestyle habits that can lower your risk of developing cancer:

According to CANSA more than 100 000 South Africans are diagnosed with cancer every year. Many factors, from your genetics to your lifestyle and environment can increase or decrease your cancer risk. Current research clearly demonstrates that approximately 50% of cancers are preventable simply through regular health screenings and through living a healthy lifestyle.

Cancer prevention takes place on different levels:

  • Primary prevention focuses on reducing your cancer risk so that the disease does not occur
  • Secondary prevention identifies the condition before the onset of symptoms and keeps it from worsening or spreading
  • Tertiary prevention reduces complications and progression of disease once it has become clinically apparent.

Primary prevention: seven risk factors to pay attention to

These cancer risk factors are, for the most part, well within our control:

1. Tobacco use – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), "Worldwide, tobacco use is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality and kills approximately 6 million people each year, from cancer and other diseases. Tobacco smoke has more than 7000 chemicals, at least 250 are known to be harmful and more than 50 are known to cause cancer."

2. A sedentary lifestyle and being overweight – The WHO points out that, "Regular physical activity and the maintenance of a healthy body weight, along with a healthy diet, considerably reduce cancer risk. In addition, healthy eating habits that prevent the development of diet-associated cancers will also lower the risk of other noncommunicable diseases."

3. Poor diet – According to the WHO, "There is a link between overweight and obesity to many types of cancer such as oesophagus, colorectum, breast, endometrium and kidney. Diets high in fruits and vegetables may have an independent protective effect against many cancers."

4. Alcohol use – The WHO tells us that, "Alcohol use is a risk factor for many cancer types including cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colorectum and breast. Risk of cancer increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. For several types of cancer, heavy drinking of alcohol combined with tobacco use substantially increases the risks of cancer."

5. Infections: The WHO reminds us that in 2012, approximately 15% of all cancers were attributable to infectious agents such as helicobacter pylori, human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, and Epstein-Barr virus.

Other risk factors include

6. Environmental pollution - Pollution in our air, water and soil with carcinogenic chemicals. Outdoor air pollution is classified as cancer-causing, for humans. The WHO tells us that, "It has been estimated that outdoor air pollution contributed to 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 including more than 200,000 lung cancer deaths. Additionally, over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels, 6% of these deaths are from lung cancer. Indoor air pollution from coal fires doubles the risk of lung cancer, particularly among non-smoking women. Exposure to carcinogens also occurs via the contamination of food, such as aflatoxins or dioxins."

7. Occupational carcinogens - Many agents, mixtures and exposure circumstances in the working environment are carcinogenic to humans and are classified as occupational carcinogens. Occupational cancers are concentrated among specific groups of the working population, for whom the risk of developing a particular form of cancer may be much higher than for the general population.

How do we combat these risk factors?

The World Health Organisation tells us that between 30-50% of cancers are preventable.

By making smarter, healthier lifestyle choices, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer. The following are recommended:

Secondary prevention: Routine medical care

Going for regular screenings is important. These sorts of tests take very little time to carry out and are well worth the effort, considering that catching a potentially severe illness early on, makes for a far better prognosis. These tests can literally save your life. Read more about screening tests here.

Tertiary prevention: Reducing morbidity and disability

Tertiary prevention refers to care aimed at reducing morbidity and disability when you’re diagnosed with, and being treated for cancer. Tertiary prevention depends on the type of cancer you have, the stage of your cancer and the type of treatment you receive. Your healthcare team will tailor a plan for you.


Severe illness can be life-changing. Discovery is here for you

At Discovery, we understand that an illness like cancer affects many aspects of your life. If you're a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member who is diagnosed with cancer, you are covered by a comprehensive Oncology Programme. You'll also have access to a palliative care programme, which offers unlimited cover for approved care at home.

To protect you financially, Discovery Life offers the best dread disease product in the market for cancer cover, as awarded by the Independent Clinical Oncology Network. Our award-winning LifeTime Max 200% Severe Illness Benefit offers coverage across the full spectrum of severities and coverage for remission of a cancer. Contact us to learn more.

The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.

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