After Cancer: Limiting Chemical Exposures

After Cancer posts address unique topics for those in cancer survivorship. This month, certified oncology dietitian Mindy Athas writes about carcinogens and reducing your risk. 

Chemical Nation

Chemicals are everywhere, but not all pose a health risk. Most concerning are those in food, grooming and cleaning products, packaging, prescription drugs, household and lawn care products. Factors that increase cancer risk include smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, on-the-job exposure to certain chemicals, radiation and sun exposure, and some viruses and bacteria.

Substances called carcinogens are linked with cancer, but interaction with a carcinogen does not automatically cause cancer. Exposure to trace amounts of multiple chemicals may not cause problems initially, but over time accumulation in body tissues may increase risk. A chart of known and possible carcinogens and environmental risks may be found at the end of this blog post. 

Carcinogens increase cancer risk depending on how much, how long, how often and when the exposure occurred. Small exposures in utero may be more serious than in an adult. Genes also play a role. Cancer risk increases when cell damage is not repaired. Avoid chemical exposures at work, home and in the environment by learning more. View a list of some safer home products. 

Reducing Your Risk

The body defends itself against harmful exposures, including cell damage repair. To improve this ability to heal and protect, increase intake of fruits and vegetables. Adults should eat at least 1 to 2 cups of fruit daily and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily. Use your fist as a guide: it’s about a cup. Choose dark and bright colors, and eat a rainbow each week. Make plants the star of your plate; use the New American Plate as your guide.

Getting regular physical exercise and more daily physical activity can help protect cells from chemical exposure damage. Try light walking, stretching, yoga or any activities that get you moving. Sit less and move more; set a timer or alarm on your phone to get up every 30 to 60 minutes. Try desk, chair or wall exercises. Fit in 10 minutes, building to 30 minutes daily at least five days a week. Add resistance activities to build or maintain muscle and strength. Check out these exercise tips from the Mayo Clinic.

Learn to manage stress, which increases cortisol levels, raises inflammation and impedes the immune system’s fight of exposures. When feeling anxious or worried, take five deep breaths, counting to five on each in- and out-breath. Breathe deep into the belly to get the whole lung volume expanded; this proper breathing can lower blood pressure and improve overall health. View breathing and relaxation tips from the American Lung Association.

Carcinogen and Environmental Risks Chart

Known Carcinogens Possible Carcinogens Environmental Risks
·       Asbestos, Arsenic, Aristolochic acid

·       Benzene, Benzidine, Beryllium, Betel quid

·       Coal gasification (unvented fire pits)

·       Chlorophenoxyl herbicides, Chlorambucil

·       Clonorchis sinensis, Helicobacter pylori infections

·       Cyclophosphamide, Cyclosporine (ciclosporin)

·       Etoposide, Formaldehyde

·       Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Hepatitis B & C virus, Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), Human papilloma virus (HPV), Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-1), Kaposi sarcoma herpesvirus (KSHV)

·       Ionizing, X- and Gamma-radiation

·       Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) & heterocyclic amines (HCAs): charred grilled meats

·       Radon

·       Industrial: tars, oils, dyes, compounds, fumes, mining, products, gases and substances:


·       Acetaldehyde

·       Acrylamide

·       Aflatoxins

·       Chloroform

·       Cisplatin

·       Climate change

·       Dacarbazine

·       DDT

·       Fragrance

·       Hormone menopausal therapy

·       Lead and lead compounds

·       Metronidazole

·       Naphthalene (mothballs)

·       Nickel, metallic

·       Phthalates (in air fresheners)

·       Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

·       1, 4 dichlorobenzene (in room deodorizer & urinal cakes)


·       Acetaldehyde & Ethanol (from alcoholic beverages)

·       Burnt/charred meats

·       Engine exhaust

·       Fireplace soot

·       Pollution: check air quality or for smog

·       Processed meats: bacon, sausage, hot dogs, smoked/cured items & salted fish (Chinese-style) can create nitrosamines

·       Radiation exposure and certain imaging

·       Smoke exposure

·       Sunlight: UVA, UVB exposure

·       Talc containing asbestiform fibers

Mindy Athas, R.D.N., C.S.O., L.D.N., is a certified oncology dietitian at the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center.

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