When someone hears the heart-wrenching news of having cancer, we could only imagine the rollercoaster of emotions they’re going through. We often allow hearsay to sway our thoughts about the risks of cancer, and many of us are guilty of believing that it’s strictly hereditary.
Cancer is a complex group of diseases with numerous possible causes. The transition from a normal cell to cancer drives changes to its DNA, also known as mutations.
The Molecular Level of Cancer
Our bodies consist of trillions of microscopic cells. These cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. The DNA machinery within the cell tightly regulates and controls this process. After a person becomes an adult, the majority of the cells divide only to replace exhausted ones or to repair injuries.
When the cells of the body begin to grow out of control, they may become cancerous. Cancer cell growth differs from healthy cell growth in a sense that instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal ones. Also, they can invade other tissues, a property that normal cells do not possess.
Genetic Changes and Cancer
Genetic changes that increase the possibility of cancer is hereditary from our parents if the changes are present in germ cells, which are the reproductive cells of the body. Such changes, called germ line changes, nest in every cell of the offspring.
Cancer-causing genetic changes can also manifest during one’s lifetime, as the result of errors that occur as cells divide once exposed to substances that damage the DNA. Somatic changes are the genetic changes that occur after conception, or when the cells of the body are in contrast to the germ line cells.
Factors Increasing the Risk of Cancer
The exact reason why a person develops cancer despite having a clear history is often left unknown, but we do know the different types of triggers, risks, and influences that contribute to the mutation of cells.
The list below includes the some of the known and suspected factors that increase the risk of getting cancer. Limiting your exposure to these triggers may lower your risk of developing terminal diseases.
There’s a valuable reason as to why we are suggested to drink moderately. Drinking alcohol can increase the chances of developing liver, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, and breast cancer. The more you drink, the higher the risk.
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate alcohol drinking as up to one drink per day for women, and up to two drinks for men.
Doctors suggest that certain substances in red wine, such as resveratrol, have anticancer properties. However, there is no evidence proving that drinking red wine reduces the risk of cancer.
Tobacco is the leading cause of cancer and death from cancer. People who smoke regularly, use tobacco products or are constantly around environmental tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke) have an increased risk of cancer because it secretes harmful chemicals that can damage the DNA.
Tobacco triggers many types of diseases including cancer of the lungs, mouth, larynx, esophagus, throat, kidney, liver, bladder, stomach, pancreas, colon, cervix, rectum, and can even develop acute myeloid leukemia.
There’s a reason why bad habits are bad. There is no safe level of tobacco use. People who use tobacco products are strongly urged to quit. Individuals who quit smoking, regardless of their gender and age, have substantial gains in life expectancy in comparison to those who continue to smoke. Also, quitting at the time of diagnosis reduces the risk of death.
It is not advisable to duck and take cover whenever the sun is out. We still need a substantial amount of sun exposure since it has excellent antioxidant properties. However, the sun, as well as sunlamps and tanning booths, give off ultraviolet radiation that causes early aging and skin cancer. It is important to keep in mind that although skin cancer is more common among people with lighter complexions, people of all skin tones can also develop the disease.
Radiation of certain wavelengths, or ionizing radiation, cause changes in the chemical balance of cells. It has enough energy to cause severe damage to the DNA and give birth to cancer. Ionizing radiation includes x-rays, gamma rays, radon, and other forms of high-energy radiation. Lower-energy, non-ionizing forms of radiation, such as visible light and the energy from cell phones and electromagnetic fields, do not damage the DNA nor found to cause cancer.
Virus and Bacteria
Viruses are minute organisms that are undetectable without the aid of a microscope. They can enter a living cell and “hijack” its machinery, enabling the infectious organism to reproduce.
Being infected with certain disease-causing organisms may increase the risk of developing cancer:
- Human papilloma viruses (HPVs) are one of the main causes of cervical cancer, which is the second most common type of cancer among women worldwide.
- Hepatitis B (HBV) and Hepatitis C (HCV) can cause the long-term chronic infections that increase the chances of liver cancer.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) increases a person’s risk of getting several types of cancer such as lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.
- Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8) or Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV) is a rare, slow-growing cancer wherein the cells that line blood and lymph vessels are infected. The infection allows the virus to divide overwhelmingly and live longer, causing them to mutate into cancer cells.
- Human T-lymphotropic virus-1 (HTLV-1) happens when the cells morphe their RNA genes into DNA. This can alter the way cells grow and divide, which sometimes lead to cancer.
Taking Precautions With Age
Another factor that highly increases the risk of cancer, but is not a toxic influence, is age. People say that you are only as old as you feel, and it is certainly true once you start to feel a decline in your health. Age is the most important factor to consider for the growth of cancer cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, 66 is the median age for cancer diagnosis, meaning half of cancer-related cases occur in people below this age, and the other half above this age.
This, however, does not cancel out the fact that cancer can spring at any given time and age. For example, bone cancer frequently manifests among people under the young age of 20, and 10 percent of people with leukemia or blood cancer are children.
Nevertheless, limiting the risks of getting cancer starts with making positive lifestyle choices. Let’s challenge ourselves to go the extra mile and increase our physical activity, make healthy food choices, limit alcohol, and seek ways to make our communities healthier places to live, work, and play in.