Risk factors

So, there are things that can increase the risk of getting cancer – ‘risk factors’. Some of them you don’t have control over – like your age and your genes. Some you do have control over – like smoking, drinking, sunbathing and what you eat.

But if you’re young and living with cancer, it’s a lot of things, but it’s not your fault. It’s not because you’ve done something bad. It’s not because of bad karma. You’re not to blame. (But it still makes sense to avoid the things in the list below that could make you ill again in the future.)

Cancer risks include:


The older you get, the more likely you are to get cancer (the risk increases a lot when you’re over 65). That’s because, the longer you live, the more time there is for cells in your body to get damaged and change in ways that can cause cancer. Cells also usually take a long time to become cancerous, so the older you are, the greater the risk.


Various things can contribute to cancer if you’re exposed to them a lot – like tobacco smoke, the sun, radiation and asbestos (a material used in older buildings that can be dangerous if it’s exposed). These things are called carcinogens. They don’t affect everyone in the same way – not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, for example. But it still makes sense to protect yourself from carcinogens whenever you can. It can reduce the risk of getting cancer in the future, and it’s better for your general health too.


Cancer starts when genes in a cell go haywire. The medical name for genes that have gone haywire is mutations. And some people are born with mutations already in their cells, which can put them at greater risk of getting cancer.


If your immune system is weakened, you can be at greater risk of getting cancer. You might be at more risk if:

  • You’ve had an organ transplant and take drugs to stop your body rejecting the new organ
  • You have HIV
  • You have another medical condition that affects your immunity.


Sure – we know, you only live once. But go all out for fags, booze, sunbeds and burgers and forget about exercise, suncream and the fruit and veg aisle, and you’re putting yourself at greater risk of cancer.

Our bodies struggle to repair themselves if we’re not living healthily. This can cause our cells to get messed up. And cells that get messed up can end up causing cancer.

So it’s important to look after yourself, now and in the future. Over 40% of cancers in the UK are caused by lifestyle choices – that’s a whole lot of pain that could be avoided.


Getting certain viruses can increase the chance of getting cancer. That doesn’t mean you can catch cancer from other people – but viruses can be passed on that change cells in ways that make cancer more likely. (Not everyone who gets these viruses will get cancer, though.)

There are things you can do to prevent these viruses being passed on. For example, if you’re a young woman, having the HPV vaccine and staying safe during sex can protect you from a virus that can cause cervical cancer.