Recognize the cancer troublemakers around us

We have trillions of cells in our body. They grow, multiply, and die following a strict genetic code. Damaged cells face three fates: repair, die, or get killed by our immune cells.   

Cancer starts with one or a few cells with damaged genetic materials. One reason we don’t get cancer daily: this cell needs to survive numerous rounds of mutations. Eventually it acquires the ability to evade our immunity and to multiply uncontrollably. The process is long and complicated. For example, from the time of infection, cervical cancer takes 10 to 30 years to develop.

Hereditary cancers are unusual (5% to 10% of all cancers are inherited). Most cancers develop because of environmental insults.

And carcinogens, environmental things that promote cancer mutations, are ubiquitous. They’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the stuff we touch, the infections we get, and the ground we walk on.

But good news: The worst of these are avoidable. I’ll list a few – in no particular order – and try to give you a sense of the magnitude of their influence.

1. Everybody knows smoking causes lung cancer. But you may not know it causes over 10 types of other cancers. Smoking produces 70 known carcinogens (no, I didn’t mess up my decimal point); there isn’t a single organ in our body that smoking spares. Smoking, including smokeless tobacco, hookah, pipes, and second-hand smoking, contributes to 40% of all cancers.

2. Alcohol increases risk of multiple cancers such as throat, colon, liver, and breast. Alcohol contributes to about 6% of all cancer. Doctors recommend moderate drinking. But when it comes to cancer risk, there isn’t a safe level of drinking.

3. Radiation in the forms of radon, sunlight, tanning devices, and medical imaging/treatment is a concern.

Imagine: Our genetic materials float safely in an enveloped enclosure called the nucleus. Things can’t just cross the nucleus, like you can’t enter a bank vault by knocking and saying, “Open sesame.”

But some radiation can penetrate cell walls and damage our genetic materials by chopping off pieces.   

First, radon, a natural radioactive gas leaking from earth, is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Outdoor levels are very low and not a worry, but radon trapped indoors can reach dangerous levels. Radon levels vary geographically – and can vary widely from one house to the next on the same street. Ohio Department of Health offers free radon kits. Check it out.

Second, sun. Skin is our first line of defense against sun damage, thus, the most vulnerable. Cancer Research UK reports, "Sunburn once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma." Tanning devices are just as bad. Combined, they contribute to 80% of skin cancers.

Finally, radiation for medical uses has varying degrees of risk. X-rays, like mammogram or dental film, use low-dose radiation and haven’t been linked to cancer. CT scans and nuclear imaging studies use more radiation. But the risk is very low and does not outweigh their diagnostic benefits.

Unfortunately, high-dose radiation, which doctors use to treat certain cancers, can induce secondary cancers.

Ultrasound and MRI do not use radiation and will not cause cancer.

4. The next group of nasties – processed meats – include my favorites. Bacon, sausages, and prosciutto are certifiable carcinogens. Why? The carcinogens come from the preservatives and processing. But the overall risk is low, it contributes to an estimated 10% of colon cancer. Burnt food has not been clearly linked to cancer.

There is a list of other things I do that may or may not help me dodge the cancer bullet. I dash past idling cars and hold my breath next to diesel-fuel trucks. I use no chemicals on my lawn. The overarching theme of my front yard is “green”; my relationship with dandelions – live and let live.

What’s on your list?

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Volume 14, Issue 8, Posted 9:26 AM, 04.19.2022