Cancer has become so rampant that we all seem to have been touched by it in some way — be it a friend or a relative with the disease. It seems to strike at such random times, we feel helpless in the face of it.
However, a new study published in Nature magazine says that cancer may be less a matter of “bad luck” and much more in our control. It's mostly a result of external, environmental risk factors, which challenges prominent research into the causes of cancer.
“There’s no question what’s at stake here,” John Potter of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington told Nature. “This informs whether or not we expend energy on prevention.”
For the study, a team of doctors led by Yusuf Hannun at Stony Brook University examined the contribution of environmental factors to cancer risk, such as data showing that people who migrated from regions of lower cancer risk to those with higher risk soon developed disease at rates consistent with their new environment, and patterns in the mutations associated with certain cancers. They found there was a "substantial contribution of external risk factors to cancer development" including environmental factors like ultraviolet (UV) radiation and carcinogens, such as smoking.
Overall, the team concluded that only 10-30% of cancers can probably be deemed “bad luck” cancers. Which means that a much higher percentage might be considered "lifestyle choice" cancers — results of the activities we choose to (or choose not to) engage in every day, and where we live.
“Our findings show that external factors are very important in cancer pathogenesis, and therefore efforts should be redoubled on studies aimed at defining factors (such as carcinogens, viruses, exposures) that increase the incidence of cancer,” said Hannun. “[T]he study has significant impact on public health policy and approaches.”
So, even though we have a lot more to learn about cancer, this study at least suggests that we do have some control over our health. Eating well, exercising, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, and trying to stay at a healthy weight are not for naught. When it comes to your health, you can stay in the driver's seat.