Risk factors are often mentioned when information is published on cancer. Risk refers to the probability that a particular event might occur. In relation to cancer, risk usually refers to the possibility that an individual will develop cancer, have a relapse (the recurrence of cancer after successful treatment), or benefit from administered treatment. Research studies that assess risk are often evaluated over a specified period of time. For instance, if a study seeks to find out the total number of men diagnosed with prostate cancer over a period of five years, results derived thereon will be applicable to risk for only the five-year period.

Information about risk allows researchers and oncologists (doctors specializing in cancer treatment) to design effective treatment plans and improve health of many individuals. For instance, the awareness that smokers are more prone to lung cancer than non-smokers resulted in a worldwide campaign to reduce the number of individuals who smoke.

Risk Factors

A risk can be described as something that increases an individual’s probability of developing cancer. Certain risks such as smoking can be controlled whereas others such as those related to age and family history cannot be controlled. While risk factors can increase the chances of developing cancer, most of them do not cause cancer directly. Certain individuals never develop cancer even when associated with several risk factors, and there are some (with no known risks) who still develop cancer. However, identifying your risk factors and discussing the same with your doctor will allow you to make more informed choices related to your lifestyle and health care.

It is important to understand your cancer risks. At a higher risk are individuals whose close relative have been diagnosed with cancer or died as a result of the cancer, especially at a relatively younger age. For instance, if a woman’s mother or sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer, then that woman will have twice the risk of developing breast cancer in comparison to a woman who does not share a similar history. Individuals with a family history of cancer can benefit by undergoing screening tests at a younger age or by increasing the frequency of such tests. If an individual’s family has a known genetic syndrome, genetic testing can prove beneficial. You can understand your risks by discussing the same with your doctor or genetic counselor.

Information about risks also helps cancer patients make informed decisions about treatment options. Patient can compare risks and benefits associated with different treatment options, for example, the effectiveness of treatment, its side effects, and its effect on the quality of life.

Questions you can ask your doctor about risks

All types of statistics including risk estimates are applicable to populations and not individuals, and must be interpreted carefully. To understand your risks, the best way is to talk to your doctor. Here are some questions you can start with during your appointment to evaluate your cancer risks.

  • What all known risk factors apply to me and how they influence the risk of developing cancer?
  • What is the probability that I will be diagnosed with cancer within the next five years? During my lifetime?
  • What steps can I take to reduce the risk of developing mesothelioma?
  • To eliminate certain risks, if I make changes in my behavior (for instance, quit smoking), then what would be the probability of developing cancer within the next 5 years? During my lifetime?
  • In case I come to face a new risk factor (for instance, if cancer is diagnosed in one of my close relatives), then by what percentage my risks will increase in comparison to the “average” individual in my age group?
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