What causes cancer?

Is there a history of breast cancer in your family? That is one of the questions I was frequently asked when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, the idea in the public’s mind that if there is no history of cancer in your family, you are somehow protected from getting the disease, is an erroneous one. The fact is that only 5-10% of breast cancers are hereditary.

Cancer is a complex group of diseases with many possible causes, including lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, and physical activity and environmental exposures to different types of chemicals and radiation. What most people don’t realise is that cancer is preventable in many cases. Learning what causes cancer and what the risk factors are is the first step in cancer prevention. Many cancer risk factors can be avoided, thus reducing the likelihood of developing cancer.

I have written many posts on how we can reduce the risk of cancer, but what I haven’t seen in the literature until now is emerging scientific evidence which pinpoints the influence both of parents and the family’s circumstances even before conception. Women’s lifestyles before getting pregnant and while carrying their baby have a major impact on whether their child will develop cancer, according to one of the world’s leading experts in nutrition.

Professor Ricardo Uauy, an adviser to the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, has put together the most comprehensive picture yet of cancer prevention throughout the course of a life, including how what happens to babies helps to define their risk later. Whether a mother-to-be smokes, drinks or is overweight all play a key role.

“Someone’s risk of developing cancer starts from before the time of conception. The risk factors are already operating in the mother’s eggs before conception,” said Uauy.

Uauy, who helped the World Cancer Research Fund to draw up its landmark 2007 global report on prevention, used growing evidence of how early-life factors affect the chances of developing the disease to highlight at a WCRF scientific conference last week what parents can do to minimise their child’s cancer risk. His analysis has led him to recommend that parents seek to reduce their baby’s risk of cancer as an adult by steps such as eating less tinned food, reducing exposure to chemicals, limiting their child’s television viewing to encourage active play habits, and not telling children to clean their plate at mealtimes in order to avoid obesity.

Women should stop smoking before they start trying to conceive, because that increases the chances of the child having a low birthweight. Children born lighter than average often then put on weight quickly, but in the form of fat rather than muscle, and develop fat around the middle, which raises cancer risk. Women should achieve a body mass index of between 18.5 and 25 before they conceive, said Uauy. They should not drink alcohol, take an iron tablet if necessary, and ensure they get at least 400 micrograms of folate every day.

In the child’s early life, breastfeeding has recognised anti-cancer effects. Babies should not eat any solid food until they are six months old, nor be given any sweet drinks such as fruit juices in case that encourages an appetite during childhood for sugar-laden drinks, which promote weight gain.

Source: Guardian Newspaper 20/09/10

European Breast Health Day takes place this year on October 15th.  Europa Donna Ireland is focusing on lifestyle choices that can influence your future breast health and help prevent breast cancer. Why not organise an awareness raising event in your area focusing on one or more of these healthy choices to help women get started to protect their breast health on Friday 15th October 2010 (no fund raising needed!) Check out their website to learn more.

Related Posts:

Lifestyle link to cancer

Can what you eat protect you against cancer?