Many cancers caused by bad luck

Everyone has heard of the risk factors associated with a higher chance of developing cancer – tobacco, alcohol, hair dye, the contraceptive pill, obesity and UV radiation from the sun to name just a few. However, a recent study from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center has found that nearly two thirds of cancers could be attributed to just “bad luck”. By this they mean that random mutations accumulated in the cell by chance occur in genes that can drive cell growth, leading to cancers.

Even the remaining third of cancers which are attributed to random mutation are not necessarily linked with lifestyle choices. Other causes can be viruses, which inject their DNA into our cells. This foreign DNA inserts itself randomly into our genome. If this happens to be in a gene that suppresses a cells ability to become cancerous, it can switch this gene off, leading to cancer. There is also the heredity element – genes passed down through the family which make an individual more susceptible to some cancers (heredity in breast cancer is a well known example of this).

None of this means that we should throw caution to the wind and ignore the risk factors. Lifestyle choices like not smoking, not drinking and keeping a healthy weight do not guarantee you a cancer free life, but they do stack the odds in your favour. These risk factors do also help explain why some cancers are more common than others. For example, in the UK there were roughly 44,000 patients diagnosed with lung cancer and 41,000 with bowel cancer, opposed to the 9,000 with kidney cancer and 9,000 with brain cancer within the last year. The lungs and bowel are exposed to many more toxins and hence cells are more likely to become cancerous. Brain and kidney cancer are still in the ten highest incidence, so there are many more cancers with even less cases than this.

There is another reason why lung and bowel cancer could be among the highest incidence, and that is again down to ‘bad luck’. These tissues are rapidly dividing tissues, as the lining of the lung and the bowel is replaced constantly to repair any damage caused. The greater number of dividing cells means that errors and mutations that occur during cell division are much more likely.

While the risk factors associated with cancer may not be the primary cause attributed to cancer development, they still play a hefty role in your likelihood of developing cancer throughout your lifetime. Just being alive means we are rolling the dice with this disease, and there is no reason to play with loaded dice.


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August 2022
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