How Random Is Cancer? A New Study Adds to the Answer

Dec 18, 2015 12:40 PM EST | By Alexis Villarias

With a bit of luck and inherited genes, you may be safe from cancer. However, a new study finds that it's not more of a "bad luck" than a combination of genes and lifestyle that leads to cancer.

Forbes reports that a compelling study earlier this year suggests that cancers are more random and out of one's control. This random mutation is widely interpreted as no amount of exercise or prevention can stop what was destined to occur. This revelation stirred controversies, challenging decades of public health recommendations that cancer can be prevented with certain behaviours.

However, a recent study which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature is challenging the "bad luck" theory. With the reanalysis of the data, cancer may actually be within our control than we were led to believe.

"Many scientists argued against the 'bad luck' or 'random mutation' theory of cancer but provided no alternative analysis to quantify the contribution of external risk factors," says study author Yusuf Hannun. "Our paper provides an alternative analysis by applying four distinct analytic approaches."

The team studied how stem cells divide into various types of tissues including lung, pancreatic and colon. In the previous study, the researchers concluded that stem-cell division increases the risk of cancer without taking consideration environmental or intrinsic factors. So Hannun's team wanted to know the extent of stem cell division or environmental factors contributes to the disease.

The results show that intrinsic factor (genes) only contribute 10 percent of a person's risk for several types of cancer. So there must be something more at play in cancer risk.

Then they later found that the majority of cancers were a result of molecular changes caused by external factors than internal ones. This goes true for colorectal, lung, bladder and thyroid cancers. They believe that it is highly unlikely that random mutations alone could lead to cancer.

More importantly, cancer risk varies geographically as well. Research has found that people who move from areas with low cancer rate to a high cancer rate area will likely develop the disease. The same could be said if a person from a high cancer rate area will move to a low cancer locale; the person risk of developing cancer is decreased.

So in conclusion, environmental factors or lifestyle likely affect one's risk for cancer than genetic changes or random mutations.

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