Have you ever wondered whether cancer is just bad lack or whether you can control your body and thus avoid it? Science says you can reduce the risk of getting cancer if you learn about what it is and what causes it.

What is cancer?

Cells in our body usually have specific jobs to do. They divide in a methodical way and when they die or are damaged they are replaced by new ones. Cancer starts with changes in one cell or a small group of cells. We normally have a stable number of each type of cell, this is because cells produce signals to control their division. If any one of these signals are faulty, cells start to grow out of control and become cancerous.

Lung cancer during cell division.

Lung cancer during cell division.

How does cancer form?

Cancer is the consequence of mutations happening in the cells during cell division (a gene is damaged, lost or copied twice). If there are at least six mutations in a cell, the cell is no longer able to understand instructions and may start growing in an unsystematic way. This can be caused by the production of abnormal proteins which do not function properly, or if proteins which usually tell a cell to stop dividing are not produced.

Is cancer bad luck?

Research has shown that whilst you can inherit cancer mutations, cancer itself cannot be directly inherited. This means that something else must be the cause. For a long time, scientists thought that cancer might have been the consequence of bad luck, some casual mutations, which cannot be prevented and controlled, happen in someone’s cells without an explanation.

However, Professor Jeff Holly from the University of Bristol, showed with reference to some sophisticated mathematical equations that cancer is not always consequence of chance. He gave evidence that it depends entirely on our lifestyle and the environment which we inhabit.

Beijing.

Beijing.

What is the evidence?

A study was run using twins, with almost identical genomes. Scientists analysed their cells to look for any predisposition to cancer. When they say predisposition, they don’t mean inherited mutations, they mean mutations that occurred over time whilst the twins grew up, caused by exposure to external factors. They found out that the number of mutations in their cells at that time was more or less the same. This means that they would have the same probability of having cancer. However, when the twins moved and started living in different countries, they analysed their cells again, and found out that the chance of getting cancer changed with a change in lifestyle. More mutated cells were identified in the twin living in a less healthy environment.

Another study involved a man who moved from Japan to Hawaii. Scientists noticed that the probability of him getting cancer increased as he moved and started settling in the American archipelago. The longer he spent there, the higher his risk became. In fact, a change in environment and lifestyle accelerated the mutation of normal cells into cancer cells.

Iceland.

Iceland.

A woman living in Iceland was also studied. She had been exposed to some external factors which caused mutations in her cells. These mutations made her inclined to get breast cancer. However, since she moved to Iceland, despite her predisposition, her cells never became cancerous. In a healthy environment, she was never exposed to factors which could increase the number of mutations in her cells and thus she never had cancer.

A study concerning people with various ages and backgrounds revealed that older people are more inclined to get cancer compared to the young. This is due to a longer exposure to external factors causing mutations and to a longer period of time over which new mutations may be added to old ones.

Where might the mutations come from?

Everyone possesses at least a few mutated cells which have the potential to become cancer cells. This can be caused by agents coming from outside the body, such as the chemicals in tobacco smoke. However, only some individuals develop cancer, whereas others are completely unaffected. How is this possible? The answer is that it depends on you.

So how can we avoid cancer and live longer?

The aforementioned professor blamed western lifestyle as a source of carcinogens. He explained that one thousand years ago the probability of getting breast cancer was about 50% less when compared to the present. He highlighted how nutrition has a great impact on our health. For example, some types of food, such as those containing high quantity of animal proteins, are very likely to increase one’s risk of cancer and they are advised to be reduced in our daily diet. Another suggestion is to relocate to less urban environments. For instance, living on a road with much traffic is not the healthiest place to live if we wish to avoid environmental factors that result in lung cancer. Radiation is something else which causes a high rate of mutations in our cells and we experience it every day.

My opinion? Move to a desert island, forget your technology, your car and the comforts of your home, live in touch with the nature and enjoy the sun… but be careful! Sun rays can cause cancer if too many hit your skin!