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Myths re Causes of Cancer

Posted 3/6/2015

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  There are a few things, but only a very few things, that we know can cause cancer: tobacco use, asbestos exposure, an unfortunate mix of bad health habits. And note the can in that sentence. Many smokers do not develop lung cancer, and many people who never have smoked do have that disease. It is not simple.

  Clearly we all wish that we could point our fingers directly at the causes. If we could do so, we could then avoid those triggers and, hopefully, cancer. Not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a heatlthy diet, limiting alcohol use, maintaining a healthy weight--all of these things help keep us generally healthy and may reduce our cancer risk. But nothing is a guarantee.

  I often talk with women who are trying to understand why they have cancer. Unless they are mutation carriers (e.g. BRCA genes) or were DES Daughters or a few other things, this is an exercise in futile frustration. It is not because they didn't manage their anger or had too much stress or were exposed to dry cleaning fluids or various insect control sprays or ate too many donuts. The rumors and myths about environment causes are especially persistent and hard to avoid. As you begin to think about this, consider how impossible it is to separate any one factor from all the things in a life. Consider, too, how difficult it is for our bodies to make a cancer. We have to be born with a genetic vulnerability (this is different than a known mutation), and then something has to trip it off. And then many safeguards that are built into us need to fail. Cancer is the result of a biological perfect storm.

  This is an excellent and thoughtful essay from Medscape on this topic

Mythbusters: Does This Cause Cancer?
Victoria Stern

Editor's Note: Although cancer incidence and mortality have decreased in recent years, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, there were about 1,665,540 newly diagnosed cancers and 585,720 deaths in 2014.
The American Cancer Society estimates that environmental factors account for about 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the United States, whereas hereditary factors make up the rest. Although most environmental risks can be attributed to lifestyle factors, such as smoking (30%) and a mixture of poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity (35%), there is still a significant burden from a range of environmental exposures. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organization's cancer research division, has classified 107 such agents to be carcinogenic to humans; these include tobacco,
asbestos, benzene, arsenic, ionizing radiation, and ultraviolet radiation.
But for other environmental exposures or chemicals, the link to cancer remains less clear. In this column, Medscape has investigated five common concerns that people have about environmental cancer risks to determine how robust the link to cancer actually is.

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