5 Surprising Factors That May Increase Your Risk of Cancer

5 surprising factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer

Cancer is a scary disease and one we don’t completely understand. What we know is that cancer is a disease where cells grow without restraint and invade normal tissue. In some cases, cancer cells follow a relentless course that carries them to other organs and tissues in distant locations. We call this phenomenon metastasis. You may have heard someone say they had cancer in an area like their breast and it spread to their liver. That’s metastasis in action and it often leads to death.

Fortunately, some cancers can be cured, if caught early, through surgery and sometimes radiation or chemotherapy in conjunction with surgery. Yet, radiation and chemotherapy damage normal tissues along with the cancerous ones. The best way to avoid the havoc that cancer can wreak is to prevent it in the first place. We know that diet likely plays a role in who develops cancer and genetics is a factor too. Staying physically active and avoiding exposure to toxins that damage cells may also reduce the risk.

More recently, research suggests that other factors MAY increase the risk of developing cancer. Here are five you should know about.

Working the Night Shift

All of your bodily functions, through your biological clock, are influenced by light striking the back of our eyes. When light hits the retina in your eye, it signals your brain to produce key hormones and other factors that impact your health. One such hormone is melatonin. When light hits your eyes when you would normally be sleeping, it turns off the production of melatonin, an antioxidant hormone that also influences other hormones in your body, including estrogen. Working a night shift and exposing your eyes to light disrupts melatonin and, in turn, estrogen. Such a disruption may be associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.

Some, but not all, studies show a link between night shift work and breast cancer. Although not proven, the link is strong enough that the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization calls shift work a “likely carcinogenic in humans.” It does not just shift work that may be a problem. Exposing your eyes to light at night in any capacity disrupts your inner biological clock and may, over time, increase cancer risk. Hitting the sack earlier in the evening and sleeping in a pitch-black room helps maximize melatonin production and reduces disruption of your biological clock.

Cooking Meat to High Temperatures

You might remember a recent study that showed a link between consuming processed meat and a greater incidence of cancer. However, even unprocessed meat produces cancer-causing chemicals when you cook them at high temperatures, particularly when you grill or fry them. Have you ever noticed the black marks and charred areas on meat when you place it on the grill? Those are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of compounds linked with DNA damage and cancer in animal studies. Grilling and barbecuing meat also produce heterocyclic amines, another class of compounds associated with cancer in studies. What types of cancer? Prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancer.

Fortunately, you can reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines by marinating meat in an acidic marinade before grilling it. One study showed that adding small amounts of the spice rosemary when grilling meat reduces heterocyclic amines in cooked meat. Formation of heterocyclic amines is also affected by cooking time and temperature. Don’t overcook meat or cook it too long. It’s also a good idea to remove any charred areas from meat before eating it.

Drinking Very Hot Beverages

Yes, tea is good for you, being a good source of antioxidants, but let it cool before drinking it. Several studies show a link between sipping very hot beverages, including healthy drinks like tea, and a greater risk of cancer of the esophagus. Seems that hot beverages cause thermal injury that, over time, can lead to chronic inflammation of the lining of the esophagus. When you damage the lining of your esophagus, it’s easier for cancer-causing chemicals from food to gain access to cells and damage them.

How do you know if you’re drinking your tea and coffee too hot? According to the World Health Organization, drinking beverages above 149 degrees F. pose a risk. Fortunately, most people in the U.S. drink their coffee and tea at lower temperatures. That’s not true in some countries though. It’s customary for residents of some parts of Asia, South America, and Africa to drink hot drinks at higher temperatures. If you love super warm beverages, it might be time to rethink your strategy.

Your Bathroom

Yes, your bathroom may expose you to chemicals that potentially cause cancer. Do you have a vinyl shower curtain? Vinyl shower curtains contain polyvinyl chloride, a carcinogen linked with liver cancer. Shower curtains made of this material give off volatile compounds, especially when they’re brand new. You can even smell the vapors when you open the plastic package that houses a new shower curtain. Unfortunately, that aroma of “newness” might be harming your health. When you take a hot shower, it hits up your bathroom, causing an even greater release of these airborne compounds. Of concern is a study that found vinyl shower curtains give off up to 108 volatile organic compounds. The question is whether the levels are high enough to impact your health. To be safe, choose organic cotton shower curtains and skip the vinyl liner.

Did you know the air fresheners most people use to freshen up the bathroom also release chemicals similar to what a vinyl shower curtain does? These chemicals called phthalates are linked with reproductive problems and disruption of hormones in animals. Whether or not they cause cancer is unproven, although some research links them with breast cancer. To be safe, use organic, unscented products in your home.

Talc Powder

Johnson and Johnson disputes it, but some studies show powder that contains talc is linked with ovarian cancer. Talc is made of silicon, magnesium, and oxygen and the particles are very fine. The theory: When you apply powder containing talc to your genital area, the fine powder can make its way up to your ovaries and cause low-grade inflammation. Over time, low-grade inflammation may damage cells and cause them to undergo a malignant change.

It DOES seem likely that talc reaches the ovaries since they’ve found talc crystals in the ovaries of women with ovarian cancer. There’s enough concern that the World Health Organization declared that talc powders, when applied around the genital area, as possibly carcinogenic. You also find talc in some make-up products you apply to your face, like eye shadow but hasn’t been linked with cancer in other areas. To be safe, choose a talc-free powder and avoid applying any powder to the genital area.

The Bottom Line?

More research is needed to confirm these findings but it’s best to reduce your exposure to these five factors. It’s best to be safe when it comes to cell damage that can lead to cancer.



Breast Cancer Fund. “Shift Work, Light-at-Night and Melatonin”

National Cancer Institute. “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk”

Cancer Sci. 2004 Apr;95(4):290-9.

Science Daily. “To Block The Carcinogens, Add A Touch Of Rosemary When Grilling Meats”

American Cancer Society. “World Health Organization Says Very Hot Drinks May Cause Cancer”

Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers. “Early Life Exposure to Phthalates and Breast Cancer Risk in Later Years”

Naturally Savvy. “Are Vinyl Shower Curtains Toxic?”

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Jul 27; 364(1526): 2097–2113. doi:  10.1098/rstb.2008.0268.

Epidemiology: May 2016 – Volume 27 – Issue 3 – p 334–346. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000434.


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