Although the exact cause of cancer is unknown there are various things which might put you at risk. For example, we cannot live without oxygen, that’s for sure. But did you know that oxygen, in its free radical form can be the main reason behind development of cancer cells?
A few basics first -
What are free radicals? They are atoms or groups of atoms with unpaired electrons which may be highly reactive. As we grow older or are exposed to certain conditions, the rate of production of these oxygen free radicals increases while the ability of the body’s immune system to fight the ‘oxidative damage’ caused by these free radicals goes on decreasing. When a lot of these oxygen free radicals accumulate over a period of time, it causes changes in the DNA of cells causing cancerous changes in them. This results in normal cells turning into cancerous ones.
How are cancer cells different from normal cells?
1. They grow faster than the normal cells at abnormal rates
2. They invade surrounding cells
3. They can self-nourish by growing extra blood vessels around them
4. They can freely move to other parts of the body causing a ‘true’ or ‘malignant cancer’.
5. They become ‘immortal’. Normal cells are programmed to die normally through a process known as apoptosis. However, the mutations in the cancer cells prevent them from dying, thus causing an increasing havoc on our body.
In a normal body, under normal conditions, the effect of oxidative stress can be reversed by our immune system. However, in cases where the oxidative stress is so high that it overwhelms our immunity or when our body’s immunity is low due to poor nutrition, diseases like TB, AIDS etc., the cancer cells emerge winners continuing to grow.
Almost everything under the sun, including the sun itself can be a risk factor for cancer. A lot depends on how strong your immune system is to take the blow. Here are a few of them you need to be aware of:
Ageing: Most cancer patients are above 65. As we grow older our cells lose their ability to regenerate and we become more susceptible to cancer.
Lack of physical activity: People who do not have enough physical activity or are overweight may be at increased risk of several types of cancers.
Hereditary: Most cancers develop because of mutations in our genes. Some of these changes can be hereditary. Very rarely some cancers like melanoma and breast, ovary, prostate and colon cancer can be passed on. However this doesn’t mean you’ll be a cancer victim if your parents had cancer.
Hormones: Sometimes a hormonal imbalance can cause cancer. Studies have shown that women who have or take estrogen for various hormonal therapies maybe prone to cancer. Some studies have also linked cancer to oral contraceptives, although the data is extremely sketchy and inconclusive.
Tobacco: Tar and nicotine can cause pre-cancerous conditions as well as full-blown cancer. Cigarette smoking is the largest single cause of death from cancer and estimates suggest it is responsible for 1 out of 3 cancer deaths. Smokeless means of consuming tobacco (snuff or chewing tobacco), cigars and pipe smoke increases the risk of mouth cancer.
Ionizing radiation: Radioactive minerals in the earth and cosmic rays from outer space are the natural sources of ionizing radiation. This kind of radiation is also given off, or emitted by radon gas, radioactive fallout, x-rays and explosions of nuclear weapons. Ionizing radiation can cause cell damage that leads to cancer. People working in or living near nuclear power plants are particularly susceptible to ionizing radiation.
Pollutants: Another reason for rising cancer cases is attributed to the contaminated environment. We are exposed to various carcinogens in our day to day life. Solvents in paint removers, grease removers, paint thinners, and dry cleaning have been linked to human cancer. Dioxins (by-products of paper bleaching, smelting, and waste incineration and also present in dairy products, meat and fish) increase the risk of lymph tissue, blood and breast cancer.
Alcohol: Another notorious cause of cancer. If you are a smoker who drinks heavily you certainly have a death wish. The risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, larynx, liver, and breast is directly proportional to the amount of alcohol you consume.
Virus and Bacteria: Some forms of bacteria and virus are known to cause various types of cancer. HPV (Human papillomavirus), HIV and some other forms of bacteria and virus make the human body more susceptible to pre-cancerous conditions or cause cancer.
Medication: Some chemotherapy drugs (to treat cancer) may increase the risk of second cancers later in life. Drugs used to suppress the immune system in patients receiving organ transplants are also associated with increased risk of cancer, particularly lymphoma.
Diet: Studies suggest that people consuming large quantities of red meat, preserved meats, salt-preserved meats and salt probably have an increased risk of cancers of the stomach, colon, uterus and prostate. Some carcinogens which occur in food items are tannin (present in tea, coffee and cocoa), cycad (cycad seed powder is used to make food items like Puttu, Eenthu kanji, Eenthu payasam, etc. in Kerala), saffrole (found in sassafras tea, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other herbs and spices), alfatoxins and ochratoxin A (Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin A are natural toxins made by fungal food contaminants).
Unsafe sex: – Practicing unsafe sex can increase your risk of developing the aforementioned HPV. HPV increases your risk factor for cervical, anal, vulvar and vaginal cancer. Syphilis a common STD too can lead to development of pre-cancerous conditions.
Sunlight: UV radiation in sunlight from the sun, sunlamps or tanning booths can cause skin cancer. Although not so popular here tanning booths are the rage among white-skinned Europeans and Americans and has been considered a cause of skin cancer.
We should keep in mind that scientists, doctors and researchers are still not sure of the exact cause of cancer. If they did we’d have a cure by now. These are some of the factors intrinsic and extrinsic that might cause or lead to cancer or pre-cancerous conditions.
Also read: War on CancerFirst Published: Apr 9, 2012 at 9:40 AM