CancerCauses of Cancer

Let's Talk About the Causes of Cancer

Empowering stat: 42% of new cancers are preventable. Learn what factors you can control for a healthier life ahead.

    Our Pro PanelCancer Causes

    We asked the nations top cancer experts for the most up-to-date-information possible.

    Steven Edge, M.D. headshot.

    Stephen Edge, M.D.Surgical Oncologist and Vice President

    Healthcare Outcomes and Policy Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center
    Buffalo, NY
    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D. headshot.

    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Assistant Professor of Oncology

    The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
    Baltimore, MD
    Marleen I. Meyers, M.D.

    Marleen I. Meyers, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, and Director of Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program

    NYU Langone Health
    New York, NY

    Frequently Asked QuestionsCancer Causes

    What in cigarettes causes cancer?

    It’s not nicotine, as you might think. While alkaloid nicotine is the addictive part of tobacco, it’s not a known carcinogen. That honor goes to more than 60 well-established carcinogens in one cigarette. Remember that a carcinogen is a cancer-causing substance, so you’re breathing in toxicity with each puff. Here are just some of the chemical classes of carcinogens found in cigarette smoke: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), N-nitrosamines, aromatic amines, aldehydes, volatile organic hydrocarbons, and metals.

    What foods cause cancer?

    It’s tough for researchers to find hard and fast links between food and cancer risk for a host of reasons, including how some foods include nutrients that might both lower and raise risk, so it’s good to be cautious about assigning cancer risk to food. What we do know: Processed meat in any amount and more than about 18 ounces of fresh meat per week were most strongly linked with a higher risk of cancer.

    Does drinking alcohol cause cancer?

    Here’s the deal on alcohol and cancer: It’s one of the few substances consistently linked to an increased risk of cancer (tobacco is another). What you drink doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, either. Researchers don’t yet know why this link exists, but they have ideas. Two chemicals in alcohol, ethanol and acetaldehyde, can cause damage to the DNA of healthy cells. By abstaining or limiting the number of drinks you have, you can lower your risk. Women: Drink no more than one drink per day. Men: Drink no more than one to two drinks a day.

    What STD causes cervical cancer?

    High-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer in women, according to the National Institutes of Health. HPV infections can happen to men too, and lead to penile cancers. HPV can also cause cancers of the mouth, throat, and anus in both women and men. Use a condom and lower your risk for all!

    • Inherited Cancers: American Cancer Society. (2018). Family Cancer Syndromes.

    • BRCA1, 2 Genetic Mutation: Journal of Cancer. (2019). “BRCA Genes: The Role in Genome Stability, Cancer Stemness and Therapy Resistance,”

    • BRCA1, 2 Mutations and Men: BreastCancer.Org. Men With BRCA Mutations Have Much Higher Risk of Cancer. (2017).

    • Familial Melanoma: Cancer.Net. (2018). Familial Malignant Melanoma.

    • Mutated Genes: The European Molecular Biology Organization. (2013). “Function of oncogenes in cancer development: a changing paradigm,”

    • Cancer Prevention: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020). Overview, Prevention.

    • Cancer Risk Factors: National Cancer Institute. (2015). Risk factors for cancer.

    • Age and Cancer Risk: American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2019. (2019).

    • Alcohol and Cancer Risk: Cancer.Net. (2017). Alcohol.

    • Smoking and Cancer Risk: Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. (2013). “Tobacco Smoking and Lung Cancer: Perception-changing facts,”

    • More on Smoking and Cancer: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (US); Office on Smoking and Health (US). (2010). How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General.

    • Weight and Cancer Risk: American Cancer Society. (2018). Does body weight affect cancer risk?

    • Food and Cancer: Cancer.Net. (2019). Food and Cancer Risk.

    • Cancer Screening Recommendations: Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Screening Tests.

    • Search for Superfund Sites: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Search for Superfund Sites Where You Live.

    Erin L. Boyle

    Erin L. Boyle


    Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is a freelance medical writer and editor.