Cancer: Genes, Lifestyle and Bad Luck?

July 28, 2015 Ibrahim Shalaby, MD

cancer-genes-lifestyle-luckThe statistics are startling: One in three women will get cancer in her lifetime and one in four men will develop the ravaging disease.

But what is it that determines whether you will be one of those statistics or whether you will be one of the lucky ones untouched by cancer?

“Cancer is caused by a combination of factors – hereditary and environmental factors and the bad luck of random genetic mistakes called mutations that occur when healthy cells divide,” says Ibrahim Shalaby, MD, FACP, FRCPC, a medical oncologist with Covenant Health’s Joe Arrington Cancer Center in Lubbock, Texas.

Dr. Shalaby says these genetic mutations may play a bigger role than previously thought.

A study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that these random mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk of getting many kinds of cancer. The study was published in Science.

“It’s been long known that some tissue types give rise to human cancers millions of times more often than other tissue types,” Dr. Shalaby says. “But the big question has always been ‘why?’ This study found that these differences can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Basically, only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues can be attributed to environmental factors or genetics. Most of those changes are due to bad luck.”

Despite the study’s results, it’s still important to live a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Shalaby says.

“We all know you exponentially increase your risk of getting some cancers by smoking or by having an unhealthy lifestyle,” Dr. Shalaby says. “If you smoke, quit. Exercise, eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean proteins and get preventive screenings such as colonoscopies.”

These findings may alleviate the guilt that some cancer patients feel when they wonder if they could have done something differently to avoid the disease, Dr. Shalaby says.

But the idea that a major contributing factor to cancer is beyond our control can be scary, Dr. Shalaby says.

“We all know people who have been affected by cancer. And we sometimes search for an explanation as to why our loved one or friend became sick,” Dr. Shalaby says. “In many cases, there’s nothing anyone could have done differently to prevent their cancer.” 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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