What Are the Risk Factors for Cancer?

As mentioned, some cancers, particularly in adults, have been associated with repetitive exposures or risk factors. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. A risk factor does not necessarily cause the disease, but it may make the body less resistant to it. The following risk factors and mechanisms have been proposed as contributing to cancer:

  • Lifestyle factors. Smoking, a high-fat diet, and working with toxic chemicals are examples of lifestyle choices that may be risk factors for some adult cancers. Most children with cancer, however, are too young to have been exposed to these lifestyle factors for any extended time.
  • Family history, inheritance, and genetics may play an important role in some childhood cancers. It is possible for cancer of varying forms to be present more than once in a family. It is unknown in these circumstances if the disease is caused by a genetic mutation, exposure to chemicals near a family's residence, a combination of these factors, or simply coincidence.
  • Some genetic disorders. For example, Wiskott-Aldrich and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome are known to alter the immune system. The immune system is a complex system that functions to protect our bodies from infection and disease. The bone marrow produces cells that later mature and function as part of the immune system. One theory suggests that the cells in the bone marrow, the stem cells, become damaged or defective, so when they reproduce to make more cells, they make abnormal cells or cancer cells. The cause of the defect in the stem cells could be related to an inherited genetic defect or exposure to a virus or toxin.
  • Exposures to certain viruses. Epstein-Barr virus and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have been linked to an increased risk of developing certain childhood cancers, such as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Possibly, the virus alters a cell in some way. That cell then reproduces an altered cell and, eventually, these alterations become a cancer cell that reproduces more cancer cells.
  • Environmental exposures. Pesticides, fertilizers, and power lines have been researched for a direct link to childhood cancers. There has been evidence of cancer occurring among nonrelated children in certain neighborhoods and/or cities. Whether prenatal or infant exposure to these agents causes cancer, or whether it is a coincidence, is unknown.
  • Some forms of high-dose chemotherapy and radiation. In some cases, children who have been exposed to these agents may develop a second malignancy later in life. These strong anticancer agents can alter cells and/or the immune system. A second malignancy is a cancer that appears as a result from treatment of a different cancer.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that evaluate a new medical approach, device, drug, or other treatment. As a Stanford Health Care patient, you have access to the latest, advanced clinical trials.

Open trials refer to studies currently accepting participants. Closed trials are not currently enrolling, but may open in the future.

Before beginning treatment, ask your doctor about any clinical trials you should consider. Learn more about clinical trials for cancer patients.

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CANCER GENETICS PROGRAM

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