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Your environment and cancer

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about how your environment can affect your risk of cancer. There is information about

 

Tobacco

Most people know that smoking is a major risk factor for lung cancer. But it may also increase the risk of the some other cancers because smoke passes over these areas as it is breathed in. This includes

Smoking can increase the risk of cancer of the oesophagus (food pipe) and stomach cancer because some smoke is swallowed.

Some cancer causing chemicals (carcinogens) from the smoke get into the bloodstream and circulate around the body, so smoking is also linked to

Smoking is also linked to kidney cancer and bladder cancer because the carcinogens in the blood are filtered into the urine.

The more you smoke, the younger you start, and the longer you keep on smoking, the more likely you are to get cancer.

Long term exposure to environmental tobacco smoke at home or at work increases the risk of lung cancer. It also increases the risk of cancer of the larynx and pharyngeal cancer. Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in childhood may cause bladder cancer later in life.

 

The sun

Most skin cancers are largely caused by over exposing your skin to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. There is more of a risk if you

  • Are fair skinned
  • Have a lot of moles
  • Have a relative who has had melanoma or non melanoma skin cancer

Non melanoma skin cancer is linked to more or less constant sun exposure over the years. So it is common in white people who live in hot countries such as South Africa and Australia. It is also linked to short periods of intense sun exposure and burning. Melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) is linked to exposing untanned skin to the sun in relatively short bursts (for example, going to a hot country for two weeks and frying on the beach). This is thought to be particularly dangerous in babies, children and young adolescents. It is important to avoid getting burned and to protect your skin when the sun is at its most intense. Remember

  • To spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
  • If there's no shade, make sure to cover up by wearing at least a hat, T shirt and sunglasses
  • To use sunscreen with at least SPF 15 (the higher the better), with good UVA protection (the more stars the better)

Sun beds can also increase the risk of skin cancer and it is best not to use them at all.

There is a lot of information about protecting your skin in the melanoma section. And there is also information on the Cancer Research UK SunSmart website.

 

Other types of radiation

where radiation comes from

Other types of radiation can help to cause cancer. We are all exposed to radiation each day. There is natural radiation from the earth and space, radiation from the nuclear power and weapons industries, and radiation from medical tests (X-rays).

Radiation helps to cause cancer by damaging the genes in body cells and causing gene faults (mutations). These may or may not lead to cancer, but the more radiation we are exposed to, the greater the chance that a gene change (mutation) will occur that could make a cancer develop.

Radiotherapy is a very important treatment for many cancers. But having radiotherapy can increase the risk of another cancer developing in the future. Doctors minimise the amount of radiation patients are exposed to as much as possible. Getting another cancer later because of having had radiotherapy is quite rare. If you are having radiotherapy it is important to remember that the most important thing for you is to treat the cancer you already have. For many cancers, radiotherapy is the best way to do this.

 

Work place hazards

Some people risk being exposed to a cancer causing substance (carcinogen) because of the work that they do. For example, workers in the chemical dye industry have been found to have a higher incidence than normal of bladder cancer. If at all possible, once a substance is known to be a cancer risk, it is no longer used. 

If a substance that may be carcinogenic has to be used, there are strict regulations covering how it is handled so that workers are protected from it. Contact the Environment Agency or the Health Protection Agency (now part of Public Health England) for information about how to protect yourself at work.

 

Asbestos

Asbestos is included here because it is such a well known cause of cancer, particularly a cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma most commonly affects the pleura (covering of the lungs). 

Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres which can be breathed in. There are different types of asbestos. All types are now banned in the UK. But white asbestos was still in use up until 1999, mostly in the car industry in brake linings. There is usually a very long time between exposure to asbestos and developing cancer, typically about 20 to 30 years or more.

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Updated: 19 February 2014