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Why Everything You’ve Heard About Cancer Is Wrong (And Right)

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A study looking at 31 types of cancer has found that the majority of those cancers – about two-thirds – are due to little more than bad luck.

But if you’re a healthy eater, don’t give up just yet.

The study, conducted by Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health, was published in January in Science magazine.

In the study, Tomasetti and Vogelstein examined 31 types of cancer, and concluded that among 22 of those types of cancer the DNA mutations which cause cancer seemed to appear randomly. The remaining nine types of cancer were attributable to lifestyle choices environmental factors and inherited predispositions.

What Causes Cancer?

It is widely accepted that genetic errors are responsible for cancer formation. Normal cells are programed to die after a certain period of time while cancer cells do not have this “knowledge” built into them. Cancer cells keep on growing and take over localized areas of the body. Eventually cancer cells can metastasize and travel to distant sites throughout the body.

What Does Research Say About Causes of Cancer?

What is significant about the study that Tomasetti and Vogelstein conducted is the degree of randomness which caused DNA to mutate. Many cancers are caused by a combination of genetic factors and lifestyle. However this study emphasizes that lifestyle may not impact the formation of several cancers as much as chance.

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It is important to note that the authors stress that prevention and healthy lifestyle habits are important for the prevention of one-third of the cancers that they studied. They are:

  • Medullary thyroid
  • Colorectal adenocarcinoma
  • FAP colorectal (colon)
  • FAP duodenal (colon)
  • Lynch colorectal (colon)
  • HCV hepatocellular (liver)
  • Human papillomavirus-16 head & neck
  • Lung cancer
  • Skin cancer (Basal cell carcinoma)

Other studies also indicate that environmental and lifestyle factors are responsible for the formation of many of the most common and fatal cancers that are prevalent today.

hospital visitThe American Cancer Society notes in its “Cancer Facts & Figures 2015” data that approximately one-third of all cancers are caused by people being inactive, overweight and eating poorly. They go on to state that smokers are 25 times more likely to contract lung cancer than non-smokers. Many cancers are related to infections, according to the society. Prevention of infections and early diagnosis and treatment are critical with these cancers. Examples of cancers which have viral components include liver, cervical and stomach cancers.

Many of the deadly and common cancers today are believed to have strong lifestyle links. Breast cancer is linked to alcohol consumption and obesity. As noted above, lung cancer is frequently due to the use of tobacco. Skin cancer is often precipitated by not protecting the skin from radiation damage and sun exposure.

Many other studies indicate that cancer is linked to chemicals in food and the environment. Plastics, exposure to electromagnetic forces and shift work may contribute to breast cancer formation.

So What Does all This Mean?

As a health care practitioner, I find the research interesting and necessary. As an individual who has thrived after having breast cancer many years ago, I am grateful that research is ongoing and hopeful that lives will be saved. I am concerned that people may misinterpret research and adopt the common attitude of, “Well, something is going to kill me. It’s just the luck of the draw. I’ll just do what I want since if one thing doesn’t kill me, something else will.”

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People often don’t realize that these life-threatening illnesses do not just kill you outright. Instead, much suffering is endured along the way by the person afflicted, as well as by those who love them.

The biggest killers in life as far as diseases – cancer, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease – all have behavioral and lifestyle components. Even if healthy habits do not prevent a specific type of cancer they are important for preventing a multitude of other ills. More importantly, healthy lifestyles promote well-being that affords you the opportunity to live well for a longer period of time.

No one is powerless in their journey to remain healthy. Every single day smokers, drinkers, overweight people and stressed-out individuals decide to make changes and focus on their health. The most successful individuals start with small steps. They might fall down frequently, but they keep on trying.

Even if a person is affected by a potentially life-threatening illness, there are choices that can be made which alleviate and prevent suffering.

There is always a choice in how we live. It may begin simply with a desire to let go of reacting to an annoying person in life. It may be choosing an organic food which is not treated with pesticides. Some people may choose to seek the assistance of a health care professional to reverse a longtime addiction. What is important is to take a step today and empower yourself to be healthy.

What do you think? How much of our health is simply genetic – and how much lifestyle? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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