Top cancer types in South Africa and what causes them

When you lower your cancer risk factors, you are also increasing your chances of remaining cancer-free. The first steps to doing this, is through awareness and education. Here is some essential information about the most common types of cancers and their risk factors.

According to the National Cancer Registry, the top most common cancers affecting men in 2009 included prostate cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer.

For women, breast cancer, cervical cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, and colorectal cancer tend to be the most common.

Breast cancer in women

The breast can be defined as the tissue overlying the chest muscles. It is important to note that both men and women can develop breast cancer. However, breast cancer in women is so prevalent, it is considered the leading cancer in women worldwide.

Risk factors:

  • Sex – being a woman is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer.

  • Age – the risk of breast cancer increases with age.

  • Family history – having a first-degree female relative (sister, mother, and/or daughter) with breast cancer, means the risk is doubled.

  • Personal history of breast cancer – a previous incident of breast cancer increases risk by three to four times.

  • Radiation exposure before age 30.

  • Lifestyle – being overweight, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise, smoking, low vitamin D levels, and an unhealthy diet increase breast cancer risk.

  • Pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause history – women who have not had a full-term pregnancy, or had their first child after age 30 are at a higher risk. So are women who started menstruating before age 12, and those that go through menopause when they are older than 55.

  • Using Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).

  • Exposure to chemicals – whether in cosmetics, food, plastics, or water.

Cervical cancer

The cervix is the narrow end of the uterus that leads to the vagina (birth canal). Worldwide, cervical cancer is the third most common type of cancer in women, and is higher in developing countries like South Africa. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by genital Human Papillomavirus

(HPV). There are many different types of HPV, and several of these strains lead to cervical cancer.

Risk factors:

  • Having sex at a young age.

  • Having many different sexual partners.

  • Having sexual partners with multiple partners.

  • Smoking tobacco products.

  • Oral contraceptive use.

  • A weakened immune system.

  • Poor economic status, which means you may not be able to afford regular Pap smears or have limited access to screening services.

  • Not using condoms.

Colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon and rectum. The colon is also known as the large intestine, and the rectum is the passageway that connects the colon to the anus.

Risk factors:

  • Advancing age – most cases of colorectal cancer occur in people aged 50 or older.

  • Family or personal history – if family members have had or have colorectal cancer, and if you have had colorectal cancer before, your risk increases.

  • Lifestyle – lack of regular physical activity, being overweight or obese, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, following a low-fibre and high-sugar diet, consuming alcohol, and smoking are all increased risk factors.

Kaposi sarcoma

Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) is characterised by patches of abnormal tissue growing under the skin, or in the lining of the mouth, nose, and throat or in other organs. The patches are commonly red or purple in appearance and are made up of cancer cells. KS tends to move much quicker in people with HIV/AIDS.

Risk factors:

  • Ethnicity – people of Jewish or Mediterranean descent, as well as equatorial Africans, are at a higher risk of developing KS.

  • Gender – men have a higher risk of developing Kaposi sarcoma than women.

  • Human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8) – the presence of this virus may cause Kaposi sarcoma to develop.

  • Immune deficiency – people with HIV/AIDS or any other condition that supresses the immune system, are at a higher risk of developing KS.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer occurs when there is uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. This growth can spread beyond the lung (metastasis) to nearby tissue and into other parts of the body. Like all cancers, the risk of lung cancer increases with age

Risk factors:

  • Exposure to chemicals and carcinogens – radon gas, cigarette smoke, asbestos, arsenic and polycyclic hydrocarbons, diesel exhaust fumes, as well as some herbicides and insecticides, can increase risk.

  • Age – lung cancer is more common in older people.

  • Genetic risk – there is a slight increase of risk in those that have a family history of lung cancer.

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer affects the male prostate gland, which is responsible for producing seminal fluid. It is one of the leading cancers of males worldwide.

Risk factors:

  • Age – older men are at a higher risk.

  • Family history – prostate cancer seems to run in some families.

  • Lifestyle – high fat intake, high red meat intake, low consumption of vegetables, obesity, lack of physical activity, high alcohol intake, smoking, and use of anabolic steroids, are all risk factors.

  • Race – although white males are still at the highest risk, prostate cancer is becoming more common among black men.

For more information, please go to

  • cancerribon
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