What’s driving cancer in South Africa

More than 6,000 South African women are diagnosed annually with breast cancer (File photo)
Written by Wilma Stassen

On World Cancer Day, Health-e News gives you an overview of what is driving cancer in South Africa, and how to reduce your risk.

What causes cancerOne in five South Africans will develop cancer in their lifetime, and the number is growing every year.

This might have you feeling like a sitting duck, especially as reports about “bad luck” being behind cancer circulate and more seemingly healthy people are diagnosed with the disease.

The truth is while up to 10 percent of cancers are due to unknown causes, there is still a lot you can do to minimise your chance of getting cancer, according to Dr Carl Albrecht, head of research at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).

Today on World Cancer Day, Health-e News gives you a rundown of cancer risk factors you can control.

Here is a list of some of the main risk factors for cancers that you can control:


In South Africa, nearly 10 percent of all deaths are caused by smoking every year, yet around nine million South Africans continue to smoke, says Dr Yussuf Salooyee from the National Council Against Smoking.

Lung cancer is the cancer most commonly associated with smoking, and smokers are up to 30 times more likely to develop this disease than non-smokers. However, smoking is also associated with at least 15 other types of cancers, including leukemia, as well as pancreatic and kidney cancer.

Reduce your risk – Stop smoking and avoid second hand smoke.


Certain viruses can also cause cancer and are responsible for nearly a third of all cancers in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the American Cancer Association’s Cancer Atlas.

The human Papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer among South African women. The virus can also cause cancers of the mouth, throat and anus among others.

Hepatitis B and C cause liver cancer while a form of the herpes virus causes Kaposi sarcoma, a form of cancer affecting soft tissues like fat, tendons and muscles. HIV has also been linked to increased risks of some cancers like that of the cervix, lung, and throat.

A school vaccination campaign started last year aims to protect Grade 4 girls against HPV. South Africans are also vaccinated against hepatitis B in childhood.

Reduce your risk – Get vaccinated and don’t have unprotected sex.


[quote float= right] Obesity is a risk factor for breast, oesophageal and pancreatic cancers among others. Alarmingly, 68 percent of South Africans are overweight or obese.

Certain chemicals in food and drink are also carcinogenic, but food can also cause cancer in another way: by having too much of it. Obesity is a risk factor for breast, oesophageal and pancreatic cancers among others.

Alarmingly, 68 percent of South Africans are overweight or obese.

There are clear associations between alcohol use and cancer of the liver, airway and digestive tracts, breast and colon.

Reduce your risk – Eat right, maintain a healthy weight and exercise at least 30 minutes a day, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.

Occupational risks

Various carcinogens are released through industrial activities and a number of cancers, including cancer of the lungs, breast and stomachs, have been linked to occupational exposure. Among the cancer-causing substances we can encounter on the job are asbestos, silica, diesel exhaust and coal tars.

Reduce your risk – limit your exposure to carcinogens and use protective gear where possible.

Other risk factors

No one knows just how much cancer is caused by environmental pollution but the American Cancer Society believes several thousand cases of cancer annually are caused by air pollution, and the presence of pollutants such chemicals as arsenic and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the world around us.

Excessive exposure to ultra violet radiation from the sun also increases the risk of skin cancer.

Reduce your risk – Avoid being in the sun between 10:00 and 14:00 and always cover up with clothing and sunblock when going outside – even if you have a dark skin. – Health-e News.


About the author

Wilma Stassen

Wilma Stassen is a reporter at Health-e News Service. She focuses on non-communicable diseases. Follow her on Twitter @Lawim

Leave a Comment