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9/10 cancer causes may be avoidable

Getting cancer is often seen as being down to bad genes or bad luck, but new research shows that as many as nine out of ten cancers are due to environmental or lifestyle factors.

The study, carried out by scientists from Stony Brook University in New York and published in the journal Nature, overturns the so-called ‘bad luck hypothesis’ – the idea that many cancers are due to random cell mutations. In January 2015, a study from Johns Hopkins University had suggested that 65% of cancers were driven by random mistakes in cell division and were therefore inevitable, and completely outside our control.

The new study also considered this evidence, but concluded that cancer incidence was far too high to be accounted for by random mutations. In fact, according to Yusuf Hannun, a key member of the research team and co-author of the study: “intrinsic risk factors contribute only modestly to cancer development.”

The team considered previous studies which have shown how immigrants moving from low cancer incidence to countries with high cancer incidence develop the same tumour rates, suggesting the risks are not biological or genetic, but environmental.  According to the new research, almost 75% of colorectal cancer risk is due to diet, 86% of skin cancer risk is a result of sun exposure and tobacco and alcohol account for 75% of the risk of developing head and neck cancers.

In its summing up, the study states: “Collectively, we conclude that cancer risk is heavily influenced by extrinsic factors. These results are important for strategizing cancer prevention, research and public health.”

Around 330,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year and 161,000 will die, according to statistics from Cancer Research UK.

Gordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer, comments: “One of the most frightening aspects of cancer – or, at least, the way cancer has traditionally been perceived – is that it seems to strike randomly, and can in many cases prove fatal. This feeling of powerlessness can put people into denial about the disease, which in itself is dangerous, possibly causing us to ignore symptoms or fail to make lifestyle changes because we do not believe they can make a difference.

“Times have changed, however. Although the threat of cancer is growing, more people are now surviving cancer than are dying from it, and methods of early detection – which makes treatment more likely to be successful – are becoming better and more widely available. While it would be difficult – perhaps impossible – for us to eliminate every environmental or lifestyle factor which raises cancer risk, each one we do eliminate – or simply regulate – will reduce that overall risk. This research may not be telling us something fundamentally new, but it does serve as a reminder that there really are things we can do ourself – differences we can make, through our own day-to-day choices. If we all made New Year resolutions to give up smoking, make improvements in our diets – including a reduction in alcohol consumption, use sunscreen and take a moderate amount of exercise, we would all be making an immediate difference to our chance of avoiding cancer.”

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