G. Marie Swanson, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Professor, Cancer Center and Department of Family Practice
What is cancer, anyway?
Cancer is really a group of diseases. There are many different types of cancer. What all cancers have in common is that they are diseases of uncontrolled growth of the body's cells.


Do we know what causes cancer?
We are continually gaining knowledge about the changes that occur in normal cells to make them become cancer cells. Scientists have identified specific agents that can cause cells to become cancerous. For example, there are many chemicals in cigarette smoke that can cause lung cancer. Chemicals and other risk factors cause genetic damage which, in turn, results in cancer.


What is cancer prevention?
Over time scientists have learned a great deal about cancer, it's causes, and early detection. Prevention is about applying this understanding to reduce cancer risk. For example, tobacco use is responsible for more than 30 percent of all cancers and 90 percent of lung cancers.

It is estimated that from one-third to two-thirds of cancers could potentially be avoided if the individuals affected made different choices regarding specific behaviors to reduce their risks.


I've heard people say, "That's a risk for cancer." What do they mean?
Anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease, such as cancer, is referred to as a risk factor. Smoking is the primary risk factor for lung cancer. Sunburns are a risk factor for skin cancer. In these examples, smoke and sun exposure are the specific factors increasing the likelihood of getting caner.


If I smoke or sunbathe, will I automatically get cancer?
Repeated exposure to a risk factor does not necessarily mean that you will get the disease, but it does mean that the possiblilty that you may get cancer is increased. There are many factors that affect your chances of getting a particular form of cancer (some we can control and others we can not control. Prevention focuses on those things in your life you can control.


What kinds of things could I do to reduce my risk for getting cancer?
Minimizing your exposure to tobacco smoke and the sun's rays will reduce your risk of certain cancers. The food choices you make and being physically active also will reduce your risks for some cancers. Examples of some simple things you can do every day to reduce your cancer risks are:
  • Join a stop-smoking support group.
  • Walk, dance, work in your yard or do other physical activities for at least 30 minutes every day.
  • Choose fruit for your afternoon snack.
  • Wear protective clothes and hats, stay in the shade, or use sunscreen when you go outdoors.


I'm young. Why should I think about cancer risks? Or, at any age, why should a person think about cancer prevention for that matter?
Anyone can get cancer. Cancer develops over many years--typically 20 to 40 or so. What you do today may affect what occurs in your body in the future. There are choices you can make each and every day that may help to minimize your risk for cancer.


If I have a question about something related to cancer or cancer prevention, who could I call?
You can ask your health care provider. You also can contact your local American Cancer Society Office and/or the American Cancer Society toll-free number 1-800-ACS-2345. The National Cancer Institute has a toll-free nationwide telephone service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237). The staff can answer questions in English or Spanish.