Cancer is caused by changes to certain genes that alter the way our cells function. Some of these genetic changes occur naturally when DNA is replicated during the process of cell division, but others are the result of environmental exposures that damage DNA.
According to the National Cancer Institute, in the year 2015, an estimated 1,658,370 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 589,430 people will die from the disease. The most common are projected to be breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, prostate cancer, colon and rectum cancer, bladder cancer, melanoma of the skin, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, thyroid cancer, kidney and renal pelvis cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, and pancreatic cancer.
- The number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024.
- Approximately 39.6 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes (based on 2010-2012 data).
- The number of new cases of cancer (cancer incidence) is 454.8 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2008-2012 cases).
- The number of cancer deaths (cancer mortality) is 171.2 per 100,000 men and women per year (based on 2008-2012 deaths).
- Cancer mortality is higher among men than women (207.9 per 100,000 men and 145.4 per 100,000 women). It is highest in African American men (261.5 per 100,000) and lowest in Asian/Pacific Islander women (91.2 per 100,000). (Based on 2008-2012 deaths.)
These statistics are scary, to put it lightly. There is no guarantee. We all know there are people that do everything right and still end up with cancer. They work out, they eat healthy, manage their stress levels, and do not engage in risky behavior such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs. On the flip side, there are some people who smoke their entire life and live to be 105, never getting cancer. It’s called chance.
From the National Cancer Institute:
Epidemiology studies shed light on risk factors for (and against) cancer. In these studies, scientists look at large groups of people and compare those who develop cancer with those who don’t. These studies may show that the people who develop cancer are more or less likely to behave in certain ways or to be exposed to certain substances than those who do not develop cancer.
Such studies, on their own, cannot prove that a behavior or substance causes cancer. For example, the finding could be a result of chance, or the true risk factor could be something other than the suspected risk factor. But findings of this type sometimes get attention in the media, and this can lead to wrong ideas about how cancer starts and spreads.
When many studies all point to a similar association between a potential risk factor and an increased risk of cancer, and when a possible mechanism exists that could explain how the risk factor could actually cause cancer, scientists can be more confident about the relationship between the two.
The list below includes the most-studied known or suspected risk factors for cancer. Although some of these risk factors can be avoided, others—such as growing older—cannot. Limiting your exposure to avoidable risk factors may lower your risk of developing certain cancers.
- Cancer-Causing Substances
- Chronic Inflammation
- Infectious Agents
Let’s look at each risk factor a little more in depth. We will start with those we have some control over: Alcohol consumption, some cancer-causing substances, management of chronic inflammation, diet, management of hormone levels, obesity, radiation, sunlight, and tobacco. I say we’re off to a pretty decent start to managing our risk factors since these are each controllable factors!
Alcohol consumption, diet, sun exposure, and tobacco are clearly choices. If you partake in these things, you are assuming and accepting an increased risk for developing cancer.
Factors such as hormones and radiation can be managed. It has to do with awareness and early detection. It is important to have your hormone levels checked at least once per year at your annual physical and more frequently if you don’t feel quite right. There are common symptoms of a hormonal imbalance and it is usually pretty easily correctable. If you are a woman and take birth control pills, please research and be aware of the risk factors of breast cancer, as well as the lowered risk of ovarian cancer. The same with radiation. You are exposed to some radiation each time you have an x-ray, a CT scan, stand near a microwave, and in some jobs. Do your best to minimize those exposures.
I want to focus on and take a deeper look at cancer causing substances and chronic inflammation. These two are also controllable and I personally feel are the two greatest contributing risk factors today.
The National Cancer Institute defines cancer causing substances as tobacco smoke, the sun’s rays, environmental pollution in the air and water, and carcinogens, listing the following (you can visit their website to research each one individually):
- Aristolochic Acids
- Coal Tar and Coal-Tar Pitch
- Coke-Oven Emissions
- Crystalline Silica (respirable size)
- Ethylene Oxide
- Hexavalent Chromium Compounds
- Indoor Emissions from the Household Combustion of Coal
- Mineral Oils: Untreated and Mildly Treated
- Nickel Compounds
- Secondhand Tobacco Smoke (Environmental Tobacco Smoke)
- Strong Inorganic Acid Mists Containing Sulfuric Acid
- Vinyl Chloride
- Wood Dust
One of the risk factors I want to share a personal experience with is chronic inflammation. I have dealt with chronic inflammation leading to a wide array of health problems including stress on the heart. I am one of those people who does not like to take medication and will reach my absolute maximum pain tolerance before doing so. This isn’t always the wisest choice.
Inflammation is a normal physiological response that causes injured tissue to heal. An inflammatory process starts when chemicals are released by the damaged tissue. In response, white blood cells make substances that cause cells to divide and grow to rebuild tissue to help repair the injury. Once the wound is healed, the inflammatory process ends.
In chronic inflammation, the inflammatory process may begin even if there is no injury, and it does not end when it should. Why the inflammation continues is not always known. Chronic inflammation may be caused by infections that don’t go away, abnormal immune reactions to normal tissues, or conditions such as obesity. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer. For example, people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease, have an increased risk of colon cancer. Many studies have investigated whether anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, reduce the risk of cancer. However, a clear answer is not yet available.
My experience with Chronic Inflammation and its effect on my overall health:
In 2009, I suffered a fall that dislocated my clavicle at the SC Joint. I followed my normal course of action, saying “it’s nothing major, it will get better!” I did not go to the doctor for a few days after the fall but finally did once the pain did not ease up. I went to Urgent Care and had an x-ray of the shoulder and was told I had dislocated my shoulder. They put it in a sling and referred me to an orthopedic doctor for follow-up. I went to the appointment and the next step was an MRI of the shoulder. There report was unremarkable, meaning no abnormalities found. Yet I was still in immense pain. The doctor suggested I had a “SLAP Tear” and referred me to physical therapy which I could not afford at the time, so I just toughed it out.
I began seeing a chiropractor for ‘alignment’ issues in my neck and back. I mentioned my shoulder injury and they of course could fix that right up also. I was a dedicated chiropractic patient for over a year, going one to three times per week. The pain never got any better but I was assured it would with time and positive thinking.
Next I finally went to physical therapy. They yanked, pulled, pushed, massaged, stretched, immobilized, taped, decompressed, and used laser and electrode therapy to no avail! The pain actually worsened during this period. I was at my wits end, frustrated and angry, the doctors were at a loss, and I was demanding answers. They decided that since I was not improving and the pain was no longer localized to my shoulder (I experienced severe muscle spasms throughout my upper back/shoulder blades and neck), that I must have fibromyalgia. I said NO! I know enough about that to know that is not what I’m experiencing. I refused that “we’re out of ideas” diagnosis!! I told them to refer me back to an orthopedic specialist and get their hands off me, basically.
It is now October 2013, almost five years later. I see a highly recommended orthopedic doctor who did x-rays and an MRI. He did several strength tests before ordering the radiology tests. Who would’ve thought that would be a profound idea? He realized that the actual source of significant pain was not in my shoulder joint, but rather in the Sternoclavicular (SC) Joint (This is where your clavicle meets your sternum). He said it was such an uncommon dislocation that he had to draft and code new “blueprints” for the radiology techs, explaining exactly where to focus. He made an immediate diagnosis that I had dislocated my SC Joint, it never healed properly, and I had now developed arthritis in the surrounding area and had a very large amount of inflammation. There was a surgical fix, but a very risky one he would not recommend for his own wife, so I did not even consider it. He offered long-term drugs for pain management including Celebrex, Voltaran Gel, and Mobic (Meloxicam). The safest one for me ended up being Meloxicam which I have been on ever since. I am essentially pain-free now, but do have flare ups at times (usually when I overdo it and push myself beyond my limits).
During that five years, I also developed something called Costochondritis. This is an inflammation of the costochondroital joints which attach your ribs to your sternum. It is considered an “inflammatory process” disease and can take up to six months to improve. This was some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life and there was a time the pain got so severe, I thought I was having a heart-attack.
What I want you to take from my experience is two things. First, I spent a long five years in pretty bad pain, and took an awful lot of Ibuprofen. I should have demanded a definitive diagnosis sooner. If you’re in pain for that long and not improving, something is not right. Do not sit around and let the doctors convince you that your pain is not real or that it is something you know it isn’t. Change doctors if you must. Get third opinions! Second, my inflammation got so severe that it was putting stress on my heart. I had some issues going on with palpitations/rhythm and they actually recommended I put some follow-up EKG testing off until I had been on the Meloxicam for sixty days to let the inflammation calm down. I rarely have those palpitations now. What was happening several times per day is now maybe once every few months.
If you are experiencing chronic inflammation for any reason, you need to address the root of the problem and find a treatment appropriate for you. If you are exposing yourself to carcinogenic factors, engaging in risky behavior such as smoking because it’s “too hard to quit” or “helps you calm down,” please find a safer alternative. Don’t become one of the statistics noted above because of a poor choice. There are people fighting cancer every single day who would give anything to not make those decisions. Let their experience be a lesson to you. Take control of what you can in this life and do positive things to decrease your risk factors for cancer and increase your immunity and overall health.
Please see my article about Natural and Organic Foods and Supplements which can tie into this topic very closely. Minimizing exposure to risk factors is key!!
Sources: National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)