What Are My Cancer Risk Factors?

As we age, our lives change—and so does our cancer risk.

There are few words in the English language that are scarier than the big C. And when it comes to age, cancer doesn’t discriminate. We’ve tapped the brains of leading experts to explain which cancers are most common at different times in life—and what steps you can take to stay healthy for years to come.

15-24 Years Old

It’s often said that teenagers and young adults feel invincible. And why not? They should have their whole lives ahead of them. Unfortunately, cancer can strike even the young and seemingly healthy. In fact, about 70,000 people ages 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year in the U.S. For people 15 to 24, the most common cancers are leukemia, lymphoma, testicular cancer and thyroid cancer. 

“Unfortunately, there are no preventable risk factors for [adolescent] lymphoma and leukemia,” says Brett Osborn, DO, author of Get Serious: A Neurosurgeon’s Guide to Optimal Health and Fitness. “Unlike cancers seen in adulthood, many of these malignancies have a strong genetic component—they are the result of an inherited genetic mutation.”

While you may not be able to prevent these cancers, you can keep an eye out for warning signs in yourself or your children, such as persistent fatigue, frequent infections, unexplained weight loss, easy bleeding or bruising, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms or groin. Keeping up with annual appointments to a primary care provider is important, too.

25-39 Years Old

In their 20s and 30s, many people become parents and start focusing on their children's wellness. But it’s still important to monitor your own health; in this group, the most common cancers are breast and melanoma. And breast cancers in younger women are more likely to be more aggressive than in older women.

To prevent breast cancer, changing your habits can help, says Noelle LoConte, MD, a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer Prevention Committee. “Breast cancer interventions include maintaining or achieving a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and cutting out high-risk alcohol use, like binge drinking,” LoConte says. Talk to your doctor if breast cancer runs in your family; you might want to start early mammograms.

If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, give serious thought to breastfeeding your baby, if you’re able. According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, mothers who breastfed for at least one year were less likely to get breast cancer than those who never nursed.

As for melanoma, we all know the importance of limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen with SPF of at least 15, and both UVA and UVB protection. Keep track of your moles and note any changes or growth to your doctor promptly.

40-54 Years Old

Turning 40, and then 50, can mean you’ve developed rich relationships, had rewarding life experiences and achieve financial stability. Unfortunately, aging also means an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer. For women, breast cancer is still the most common, and it’s now more important than ever to talk to your doctor about when to begin screening mammograms. For middle-aged men, the most common diagnosis is testicular cancer, LoConte says.

Many men with testicular cancer have no known risk factors, and of the ones who do, the risk factors are unpreventable — undescended testicles, white race and a family history of the disease. Although you might not be able to prevent the disease, you can identify it early and have a better chance of treating it. Aim to do monthly self-exams, checking for lumps or anything that doesn’t feel right, and ask your doctor about whether a testicular exam should be a part of your annual physical.

55-69 Years Old

By the time you’re starting to get the senior discount, life is good. Retirement is on the horizon, the kids have moved out and you have a dream vacation planned. For men older than 55, though, prostate cancer is a looming risk, Osborn says. At some point in their lifetimes, 14 percent of men will be diagnosed with the disease, making it the second most common cancer among American men (after skin). Ladies, breast cancer is still your biggest cancer threat. The good news: Both prostate and breast cancer are very treatable when found early.

Men should focus on their diets to prevent prostate cancer. “Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet and consume tomatoes a few times a week for their lycopene,” Osborn says. Studies have shown that lycopene may have preventive effects for cancers of the prostate, skin, breast, lung and liver. Women should continue their mammograms.

70+ Years Old

As you've grown older, you've probably seen several friends or family members battle cancer. So you’re well aware of the importance of being vigilant about your health. The average age of diagnosis is about 70.

“This probably won’t come as shocking news, but the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is not to smoke and to avoid breathing in other people’s smoke,” Osborn says. If you stop smoking before a cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to repair itself. No matter what your age or how long you’ve smoked, breaking the habit may lower your risk and help you live longer and better.

Cancer's Genetic Connection

Although there are many factors that contribute to your risk for cancer, your genetic susceptibility is one that should not be overlooked. If you have two or more relatives with a history of cancer, it might be the result of an inherited cancer susceptibility gene.

“By understanding the individual differences in our genes, environment and lifestyle, we can have a better understanding of our risk for cancer,” says Cindy Snyder, a nurse practitioner and a board-certified advanced genetics nurse for the Cancer Genetics and Risk Assessment Program at Gwinnett Medical Center.

During a consultation, Snyder reviews how families inherit cancer and how genes are passed on to children, as well as the types of cancer seen in the family to estimate each individual’s overall cancer risk. With this personalized information, people can be proactive in their approach to early detection and prevention by starting to screen for cancer at an earlier age.