Is Cancer Bad Luck?

Throwback to late December, 2014. The holiday season was coming to an end. I don’t know about you but perhaps I had indulged in one or two many cheeky mince pies. Alright, maybe ten, but who cares! It was the holidays. A time for goodwill… or in my case over-indulging. Alas, the feeding frenzy had come to an end and I was feeling like a life-sized Christmas pudding. New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and my goal for 2015 was to get back on that gym “grind”, to have a good, balanced, diet and to be in control of my health before the consequences of being lazy and eating junk set in.

My spirit animal...

I’m sure many of you reading this can relate and whether it’s to get that 'perfect beach body' or to live a healthier lifestyle, with the aim of preventing illness, the most common resolutions include: Losing weight, getting fit, quitting smoking, eating healthier, dieting and drinking less. Oh, the irony of me sitting here writing this whilst I make my way through a box of chocolates...

Decembers over and it’s the first of January, 2015. You’ve got your gym membership, the cigarettes are in the bin, wine poured down the sink, fruit at the ready, you’re ready to fight for your health and BAM, BBC news enlightens you that most cancer types are ‘just bad luck’. I expect that when hearing that ‘2/3 cancer types were caused by chance and not lifestyle’ that A LOT of people fell back into ‘bad’ habits.

So where did this statement come from?

A study carried out by Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein, two Scientists based at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Department of Biostatistics, had focused on understanding why some tissues gave rise to cancers more than others. In short, their results suggested that "only a third of variation in cancer risk is attributed to environmental factors or inherited predispositions...".

In my opinion there are a number of issues with this study. The main one being that they didn't bother to include the two most common types of cancer there are - breast and prostate. I don't really understand how they can then say that 65% are due to bad luck when they haven't investigated the most common cancers but there we go. Further to this, it is widely accepted in other studies that there are extrinsic risk factors (coming from outside the body) at play. For example in breast cancer weight and alcohol intake are known risk factors.

Others also had strong opinions with most being un-supportive of the study and claims by the media:

The World Health Organisation - “Strongly disagreed with the report" stating that "Nearly half of all cancer cases worldwide can be prevented”

The Stat's Guy - "We know that lifestyle is hugely important not only for cancer, but for many other diseases as well. For the media to give the impression that lifestyle isn’t important, based on a misunderstanding of what the research shows, is highly irresponsible."

The commotion and debate surrounding the study soon died out only to be replaced with another study by the end of the year stating that cancer is in fact linked to 'extrinsic factors'.

Sorry, what? You’re now telling me that I can’t eat as many Jaffa Cakes in one sitting as I’d like? "Noooooo". Fear not, moderation is your best friend and apparently so are salad's now… yummy. 

It makes sense though. Of course, no one can deny that intrinsic factors, such as errors in DNA replication which build up over time, do not play a role in cancer development. However, we already know that outside (extrinsic) influences do play a role. I'm sure you are all aware of the damage that UV rays from the sun can cause in relation to skin cancer, and as I'm not your mum I won't give you the talk on how you should wear sunscreen, however, the evidence is there and there's a lot of it.

The guys at Stony Brook University, NY, took into consideration the data from Tomasetti and Vogelstein, analysing it and producing their own study. What they concluded was that there is less than a 10% risk traceable to DNA replication errors (intrinsic). From their point of view there was a mountain of evidence backing the fact that our lifestyle choices and environmental factors are related to our risk of cancer.

So does this mean that we avoid absolutely everything that could cause cancer? Personally I think a life like that would be incredibly dull, sometimes it's nice to have a steak even if there's been talks of red meat being associated with cancer and maybe you wan't to have a drink after a hard week at work. The choice is completely up to you. For me, I'm not a smoker, as a student... yeaaaah, I drink occasionally and I try to maintain a healthy diet but I also indulge or I would go insane. Moderation for me is the key to a happy life. I do think that as individuals we are armed with the knowledge to know what may cause disease and what may not. Perhaps prevention can begin at home by making 'healthier' choices and this is exactly where my blog is heading. Unfortunately, it could happen to any of us. A great analogy I love came from Dr Yusuf of Stony Brook University. It went a little along these lines...

If we are playing Russian roulette intrinsic factors add one bullet to the chamber. By smoking we are adding more bullets to the chamber and our risk of cancer increases. There is still an element of 'luck' as not every smoker gets cancer but they have the odds stacked against them. From a public health point of view we want to remove as many bullets as possible from the chamber.

P.S You should wear sunscreen ;)



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