Reducing cancer risks on the farm

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In today's world, more and more people are surviving cancer than ever before thanks to important advances in cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Even so, cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States—and compared to people in other occupations, farmers and agricultural workers tend to have a higher cancer risk.

Many things may explain the link between farming and cancer risk, including increased exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and exposure to certain chemicals that may be carcinogenic (cancer-causing). But just because you're living the farming life doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to protect yourself.

This month, as we celebrate National Cancer Prevention Month, we're highlighting a few simple things farmers can do to reduce their risk of cancer.

Handle with care

Farmers today use many products that protect crops and ensure a good yield. But things like pesticides and fertilizers contain compounds that have been linked to cancer in humans. 

It's important to familiarize yourself with the type of chemicals you use on your farms, including how to safely transport, handle, store and discard them. Know the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) you should wear while using these chemicals, including respirators, goggles and gloves. Never eat or drink near these chemicals and always wash your hands thoroughly after touching or handling them. 

Be sun savvy 

Unlike other professions, farmers spend a majority of their time outside. You should know that even on cloudy days, UV radiation could reach your body and cause sunburn. Unfortunately, even just one or two sunburns per year can significantly increase the risk of developing skin cancer like melanoma.

So remember, be smart about the sun: 

  • Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed skin and reapply regularly, even on cloudy days. Don't forget the chest, neck, ears and face!
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats.
  • Wear sunglasses that block UV rays from the sun, but don't wear them in place of safety goggles when more protective eyewear is needed.
  • Create shade when you can, such as by installing an umbrella or tractor canopy on your open cab equipment.
  • Check your skin regularly and talk to a doctor if you notice any unusual or concerning moles, bumps, rashes or other changes.


It's not always possible for farmers to avoid working between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is when the sun's rays are the strongest. Just make sure to wear light layers, a hat and adequate sunscreen.

Look at your lifestyle 

Not all cancers are preventable, but there are plenty of things you can do to make cancer less likely for you. 

For example, we know that people who regularly exercise, don't get too much sun, don't smoke, don't drink too much alcohol, eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies, get enough sleep and maintain a healthy weight are less likely to develop cancer than people who don't do these things. 

So take an honest look at your lifestyle. Can you make a small change somewhere to improve your health and reduce your cancer risk? Can you cut back on your drinking? Finally kick the tobacco? Add an extra serving of fruit or vegetable to your daily meals? Know that even a small step made consistently in the right direction can make a big difference in the long run.

Know which cancer screenings are right for you

Farmers and their families tend to live in rural areas where access to medical care may not always be easy to find. Make the most of your wellness visits and check-ups by talking to your doctor about which cancer screenings you might need based on your family history, medical history, age, health and occupational risk factors.

Providing cancer support and resources for farm families throughout Southern Illinois

If you or a loved one are struggling with a cancer diagnosis, help is just a phone call away. Call or text the Farm Family Resource Initiative (FFRI) helpline at 1-833-FARM-SOS (833-327-6767) to speak with a counselor or learn more about resources that can help you and your family. 

Karen Leavitt Stallman
Ag Resource Specialist

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