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Cancer risk is not just about bad luck
Posted on 2015/01/07

A recent study published in the journal Science, has caused much confusion in the media and the public.  The study, from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center indicated that the majority of cancers are the result of bad luck.  While this concept makes a great headline, it’s not actually true.

The most common cancers – lung, breast, colorectal and prostate – are influenced by many lifestyle factors, including smoking, obesity, poor diet, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and sun exposure.  These are all factors that can be modified through changes in behaviour; meaning you can lower your risk for developing cancer (and don’t have to rely on luck).

The research that forms the basis of this study is a theoretical mathematical modelling study that suggests that the “variation” of risk across 31 cancers types may be explained by the relationship between the lifetime number of divisions among stem cells in a particular organ and the risk of developing cancer in that organ. 

In lay terms, the chances of developing cancer are reliant on the number of times the cells of certain organs divide. The more times they divide, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong.

However, there is a large body of evidence that shows up to 50 per cent of cancers can be prevented through simple lifestyle choices.

And while it is impossible to predict who will develop cancer, it’s important to understand the factors that are increasing your risk.

Certain things, like age and family history, can affect your chances of developing cancer; but there are factors you can control, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy, exercising regularly, being sun smart and getting screened for cancer.

Linda Rabeneck MD MPH FRCPC
Vice-President, Prevention and Cancer Control
Cancer Care Ontario

Last modified: Wed, Jan 07, 2015
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