I’m routinely asked if I know what could have caused my cancer, and to be honest, there is not one clear answer. Cancer is a disease that develops when a number of genes are damaged and the cells begin to grow rapidly with no control. Our bodies are marvelous at finding and repairing damaged DNA or killing cells that cannot be repaired but in cancer, those mechanisms have failed. Several factors can lead to that damage so I’ll outline them here, some we have control over, and some we don’t.
Oh boy, this is a big one and you have no control over it. We know that mutations in certain genes will predispose you to cancer. Some of the better-known ones are BRCA gene for breast cancer and P53 for all cancers. However, one mutation alone will probably not be enough for you to develop cancer (P53 maybe, but I’ll come back to that), but if you had a long family history of cancer (especially the same form of cancer), you should talk to your doctor about getting genetic testing done.
In my case, we could only test for one gene, P53. I didn’t have a mutation in my normal tissue but I did in my tumor cells, which is common. The plan is, if you test positive for a mutation in P53, they do a whole body scan once a year, but if you have a mutation in this gene….you will know it. P53 is called “The Guardian of the Genome” so people with a mutation in P53 will typically have other health issues.
It is possible that I have a gene mutation that increased my risk to develop this form of cancer, but as of now, those genes haven’t been identified. One of the major issues with that rare cancers is that there typically is funding and less research, both of which I understand.
Diet and Exercise
Good news, you can control this one. The bad news is that it is much more fun to eat triple cheeseburgers 3 meals a day while binge watching Netflix in your underwear. The ACS has an entire section dedicated to lifestyle choices but it is basically what you would expect. You should eat more fresh fruit and veggies, don’t fry meat, limit sugary soft drinks, etc. (You can read all the suggestions Here).
Everyone knows you should stay active, again though, sitting on the couch eating triple cheeseburgers in your underwear watching Netflix is more fun. You do need to be active. This doesn’t mean you have to spend 4 hours a day at the gym, it does mean you should walk more, take the stairs, and aim for 150 minutes (2 and a half hours) of moderate exercise a week. There are many apps that will you help to keep track of exercise and calories.
I will admit that I haven’t always paid as much attention to my diet as I should have, but I worked a physically demanding job for several years and it was during that time that I developed cancer, so I covered the exercise aspect.
While there have been many studies on the effect of a diet, they have been based mainly the compounds contained in food, and it is very hard to study these compounds in humans. The Nation Cancer Institute has a wonderful summary on the issue of diets in regards to cancer development. You can read it here (ACS Diet ).
We know that hormones can increase your risk of developing cancer in both males and females. However, even though I had a tumor of the endocrine system (the endocrine system produces and secretes hormones into the circulatory system) my hormones were within the normal range.
The tumor is referred to as “non-functioning” when the abnormal cells are not producing excess hormones. In regards to treatment, I was informed that removing a tumor without gently weaning my body off excess hormones would be like someone quitting heroin cold turkey. I have never quit heroin cold turkey, but I imagine it is not a pleasant experience.
We know that immunosuppression can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. This can be genetic or acquired. In my case, I never had immune system problems before chemotherapy, so this was not a factor in my cancer. If you have a condition that leads to you having immunosuppression, you will probably know it.
Certain infectious agents can lead to immunosuppression, these include certain viruses, bacteria, and parasites. However, once cancer develops, simply removing the infectious again will not cure it.
By the way, if you have heard of the idea that you should put cabbage in water with a huge amount of salt, let it sit for a few days and drink it to remove imaginary parasites from your liver. I will say this is a bad idea and intentionally giving your uncontrollable diarrhea for an extended amount of time cannot be pleasant or beneficial.
Being obese can increase your risk of developing certain cancers as well as other health issues. I was never overweight before treatment, so that was not a factor in my development of cancer. In fact, I was the opposite, often times I was underweight (Which considering my diet was quite amazing). If you want to read more on this, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has a wonderful page set up that covers obesity in depth (NHLBI).
Do I really to explain that smoking is bad for you? Needless to say, this has been widely discussed. However, I am a non-smoker and I was never a smoker, but I have been around smokers my entire life.
Did this play a role in my development of cancer? Maybe? Again with a satisfying answer.
So if anyone tells you they know exactly why someone got cancer, tell them “no”. If they continue, feel free to throw something at them.
With that point, I’m going to wrap this post up. While there are more factors that I have listed I’m hoping that you can see, it’s impossible to tell what causes a specific case of cancer. You can reduce your risk, but you can’t eliminate it. One piece of advice I was given was to simply “Live well, Eat well” and that is the best advice I can give.