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Cancer Causes and Prevention

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There are approximately 11,070 new cases of cancer diagnosed in Northern Ireland each year. It is a disease that is more common in older people than in young people with 74% of cancer patients aged 60 and over.

Cancer can develop as a result of factors related to environment, lifestyle, and heredity. While our current understanding of the causes of cancer is incomplete, many risk factors that increase the possibility of getting cancer have been identified. These include:

  • Age (50% of all cancers are diagnosed in patients aged 69 and over);
  • History of cancer in the family;
  • Tobacco use;
  • Excessive alcohol consumption;
  • Lack of balanced diet, in particular insufficient consumption of fruit and vegetables;
  • Lack of physical activity and/or obesity;
  • Ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or sunbeds;
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as asbestos, benzene or radon gas;
  • Exposure to ionising radiation;
  • Infections such as human papillomavirus, Hepatitis B, Helicobacter Pylori;
  • Treatments such as exposure to oestrogen through Hormone Replacement Therapy;
  • Late or lack of reproduction in women;
  • Lack of breast feeding in women;

Many of these risk factors can be avoided however others, such as age and inherited risk factors, are unavoidable. However, as we age we can help protect ourselves by avoiding further risk factors where possible and by getting regular checkups so that, if cancer develops, it is likely to be found early. Of the remaining avoidable factors some, such as tobacco use, can increase the risk of getting particular cancers by a significant amount while others increase the risk only by a slight margin.

Commonly discussed possible causes such as non-ionising radiation (such as that from mobile phones) or other electromagnetic fields (such as those emitted by electricity pylons) have not been proven to have a carcinogenic effect.

Further details on risks and protective factors for each of the main cancers are given in blue on the left side to the site.

Contact Information

N. Ireland Cancer Registry
Centre for Public Health, School of Medicine, Dentistry & Biomedical Sciences
Queen's University Belfast
Mulhouse Building
Grosvenor Road
BT12 6DP

Tel: +(44)28 9063 2573
Fax: +(44)28 9024 8017

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