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Cancer can be bad luck

There have been so many reports and features advising us on improving our lifestyles that for some people, when diagnosed with cancer, they can feel guilt along with the other emotions that come when you know you have a serious health problem.

So while some of the most common and deadly cancers are still influenced by lifestyles, it is interesting to see a new authoritative report suggests that most types of cancer can be put down to simple bad luck.


Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, America, studied 31 different types of cancers and found that just nine were closely linked to lifestyle or genetic faults. They concluded the other 22 types of cancer developed simply as a result of bad luck, with lifestyle having minimal impact in their development.

The team of scientists were researching cancer development and why some tissues were millions of times more vulnerable to cancer than others. While it was known that there is an element of chance in developing cancer – whether your DNA acquired a mutation that leads to cancer – this new study shows that a high two thirds of cancer types are simply caused by bad luck.

“All cancers are caused by a combination of bad luck, the environment and heredity, and we’ve created a model that may help quantify how much of these three factors contribute to cancer development,”

said Bert Vogelstein, M.D., the Clayton Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was involved in the research.

“Cancer-free longevity in people exposed to cancer-causing agents, such as tobacco, is often attributed to their ‘good genes,’ but the truth is that most of them simply had good luck,” he added.“This study shows that while you can add to your risk of getting cancers by smoking or other poor lifestyle factor, many forms of cancer are due largely to the bad luck of acquiring a mutation in a cancer driver gene regardless of lifestyle and heredity factors.”

The scientists involved in the research say that because it now seems it is impossible to prevent most types of cancer through behavioural changes or genetic screening, more should be done to speed up diagnosis so cancers can be spotted as early as possible.

Voegelstein’s colleague Dr Christian Tomasetti who was also involved in the research, said: "If two-thirds of cancer incidence across tissues is explained by random DNA mutations that occur when stem cells divide, then changing our lifestyle and habits will be a huge help in preventing certain cancers, but may not be as effective for a variety of others.

"We should focus more resources on finding ways to detect such cancers at early, curable stages,” he said.

Both Dr Vogelstein and Tomasetti confirmed though that it is vital not to ignore lifestyle influences in the development of key cancers such as lung cancer.

It is also worth noting that some cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer, were not included in the study because of a problem with finding reliable stem cell division rates.

Cancers that can be caused by the environment, genes and lifestyles include skin cancer (caused by the sun); throat cancer and liver cancer (caused by a virus); thyroid cancer (caused by radiation); lung cancer (caused by smoking) and colon cancer (caused by food and lifestyle).

However some of these cancers such as certain types of lung and skin cancers can develop simply by bad luck. Others that appear to develop simply from chance include brain, oesophageal, bone, ovarian and testicular cancers.

Laterlife would like to thank C. Tomasetti, B. Vogelstein and illustrator Elizabeth Cook, of John Hopkins University for the above.

The scientists involved in the study say the best way to eradicate these “bad luck” cancers will be through early detection, when they are still curable by surgery.

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