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Cancer Risks: Separating Myths From Facts

You might think you’re doomed to get cancer because one of your parents had it. Or that steering clear of deli meats or wearing natural deodorant will keep you healthy. Are those things really true, though?

Many of us have misunderstandings about what does and does not increase the chances for cancer, said Sanjay Reddy, MD, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. But when it comes to promoting and protecting your health, it’s particularly important to know the myths from the facts.

Here’s a look at seven common sources of cancer confusion—and which ones are myths and which ones are facts.  

1. If you have a family history of cancer, you’ll get cancer too.

Myth. Family history can increase the risk for some cancers, but it’s far from a guarantee. Only 5 to 10 percent of cancers are directly caused by gene mutations that come from a parent. What’s more, around 4 out of 10 cancers can be prevented by healthy lifestyle behaviors alone—think eating right, keeping your weight in check, staying active, limiting alcohol, and avoiding tobacco. That said, it is always good to be aware of your family’s cancer history and to talk with your doctor about it.  

2. Taking aspirin can prevent some cancers.

Fact. You might be surprised to learn that regular aspirin use has been shown to reduce the risk for colorectal cancer. Experts don’t yet fully understand how aspirin helps, or how well it defends against other types of cancer. But it may be worth discussing with your primary care provider. It’s also important to remember not to add any medications to your routine without discussing with them first.

3. Diet has nothing to do with cancer risk.

Myth. Make no mistake about it: “Eating healthy can help with cancer prevention,” Reddy said. Plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans contain phytochemicals—protective plant compounds that have been shown to reduce your cancer risk. These foods are also low in calories, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight, which also lowers your cancer risk. 

4. Eating a lot of processed meats can increase cancer risk.

Fact. It’s a good idea to limit your consumption of foods such as hot dogs, lunch meats, and other processed meats. They contain nitrites, preservatives that increase your risk for colorectal and stomach cancers.

5. Exercise can help prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.

Fact. Regular physical activity isn’t just linked to lower cancer rates. It’s actually been shown to help keep certain cancers—like breast cancer—from coming back. Studies also suggest that people with some cancers, such as colorectal or prostate, have a lower risk of dying prematurely when they exercise regularly. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, per week.  

6. Deodorant causes cancer.

Myth. You might have heard that aluminum-based antiperspirants can be absorbed by nearby breast tissue and raise breast cancer risk. But there’s currently no conclusive evidence showing that using these products will make you more likely to get breast cancer.   

7. Indoor tanning beds are safer than tanning in the sun.

Myth. “Any kind of tanning will increase the risk of skin cancer,” Reddy said. That’s because spending time in either the sun or a tanning bed exposes you to harmful UV rays. Your safest bet is to steer clear of indoor tanning beds altogether and to use appropriate protection (like sunscreen with an SPF of 30) when outdoors.