Cancer is not just down to bad luck


A study earlier this year caused quite a storm by suggesting that cancer in human beings is down to inherent issues such as genetics.

Of course, the media had a field day, covering the story as cancer being down to ‘bad luck’.

But a new study this week challenges the findings of the first. The study, published in the journal Nature shows that environmental factors such as diet, overexposure to the sun, tobacco and alcohol, as well as viruses such as hepatitis B and C impact between 70 and 90 per cent of cancer incidences – pretty high odds.

The high percentage risk factors “provide direct evidence that environmental factors play important roles in cancer incidence and they are modifiable through lifestyle changes and/or vaccinations”, the researchers wrote.

That doesn’t mean that if you stay healthy, exercise regularly and have a good diet that you won’t get cancer – but it does mean you can reduce the risk.

And it makes sense. If you look at the engine in your car, combustion engines have been around for a little over 150 years. We know that if we service them regularly, the car is less likely to break down. If we feed them the right fuel, they’ll keep running. You don’t pull up at the petrol station in a diesel car and fill it with with unleaded – you know the car will stop working – and you know that if you leave the car rusting and don’t take it for a run every so often, some of the parts will begin to seize up.

Conversely, humans have been around for around 2.5 million years. In that time, the body has evolved into a highly efficient machine adept at burning the right fuels and adapting to environmental changes and stimulated by exercise.

Yet so many of us don’t exercise our bodies and don’t feed them the right fuel (Think how long processed foods, refined sugars and trans fats have been around in comparison to humans…. it’s unlikely the body has adapted to these manmade nutrient-light ‘foods’).

Whenever I have this debate with people, someone will inevitably roll out the friend of a friend’s granny who chain smokes, sinks a bottle of gin a day and has lived to get a telegram from the Queen – that’s past 100 for younger readers who might not know what a telegram is 🙂

And that might be true (although I can come up with loads of other examples of people who have done  the opposite and still live long healthy lives.

But here’s another was of looking at it  that I read in one of the reports about the new study this week. Think of your chances of getting cancer as a game of Russian Roulette.

You have a revolver and there’s a genetic bullet in it – this is your probability of getting cancer from intrinsic factors, ie genes, your family history etc.

There are other bullets… the extrinsic factors: things like a lack of exercise, bad diet, environmental pollution, smoking, drinking too much…

How many of those do you really want to load into the chamber before you pull the trigger?