We’ve all seen scary news stories linking a food, chemical or other substance to cancer. These headlines may make you wonder what to do. To decide, it helps to know a little about carcinogens.
A carcinogen is any substance, behavior or exposure that can lead to cancer. Examples include asbestos and tobacco smoke (substances), a sedentary lifestyle (a behavior) and unprotected sunbathing (an exposure).
For something to be identified as a carcinogen, it typically has to be studied extensively by reputable agencies. But just because something is a carcinogen doesn’t make it a big danger to you. Here’s why:
Carcinogens vary in cancer-causing potential. Some carcinogens increase the risk of cancer after brief high levels of exposure, while others may cause cancer after exposure over many years. An individual’s cancer risk also depends on genetics and lifestyle.
Most carcinogens raise the risk for specific types of cancer, not all cancers. For example, a rare form of cancer known as mesothelioma is linked specifically to asbestos exposure. Those with a family history of a specific cancer should take extra precautions limit carcinogens linked to that cancer.
Some carcinogens have beneficial effects. For example, too much sun exposure can cause skin cancer, but in small doses sun helps the body produce vitamin D. Some medications can raise the risk of developing cancers, but their benefits can outweigh the risks.