So what really causes Cancer? Is Breast Cancer really the result of Aluminum in antiperspirant? Do mobile phones really cause brain cancer? And what about plastic bottles of water left in the sun in the car to heat up. Is it MSG? What’s the truth? Let’s dissect each of these in turn with the available evidence rather than relying on urban myth.
There have been reports that the Radiofrequency fields associated with mobile phones and other devices might cause Brain cancers. The WHO did a 13 country INTERPHONE study which did not show any increased risk of cancers with any but the highest users.
However their use has exploded in recent years and it may take time for slow growing brain tumours to rear their heads. So at the moment there is no clear evidence of an increased risk but this might change in the next 10-20 years. It is generally advised that children try to limit phone calls by texting/using a blue tooth device.
A surprise to me while researching for this blog was to find that the much maligned MSG not in fact, a carcinogen! MSG, which is essentially an amino acid called Glutamine is commonly used in Chinese foods as it activates ‘Umami” a fifth component of our sense of taste.
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners like Saccharin and Aspartamine came under scrutiny because of a couple of studies that showed that they could cause bladder cancer and brain cancer respectively, IN RATS! Large studies looking at humans have confirmed no such association in us and people with Diabetes who consume these have no increased risk of bladder and brain cancers (fact sheet) . In contrast, high levels of processed sugar cause obesity and that increases the risk of endometrial, breast, and bowel cancer. High consumption of natural sugar also increases the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Diabetes is associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer! So again the healthy diet holds true.
Hoax e mails falsely attributed to John Hopkins have been circulating warning against leaving water in plastic bottles in the sun, or freezing water in plastic bottles. The emails claim that water bottles, when heated release dioxins and a chemical called DEHA. There is no convincing evidence that dioxins are produced when plastic is heated in a microwave/gets hot in the sun, or even if they are actually present in plastic water bottles. The US environmental Protection Agency removed DEHA from its list of toxic chemicals because they don’t think they cause cancer http://www.cancer.org/aboutus/howwehelpyou/plasticwaterbottles
Breast Cancer is not caused by deodorants/antiperspirants. There was some concern that the parabens and aluminium salts used in these could cause cancer. This was because the majority of breast cancers occur in the area of the breast nearest the underarm. However an overview of 19 studies in 2008 showed no evidence of this. It is likely that the higher cancer rate in that area of the breast is because there is more breast tissue there anyway.
Is Cancer due to ‘Bad Luck’ ?
A friend of mine (in finance of course) recently told me that There was a recent paper published that claimed that Cancer was a result of “bad luck” and that there was really nothing we could do to prevent it.(1) This hit the mainstream headlines…Prompting many to sit back and say ‘.. See all this talk of diet and exercise and alcohol is useless…’ People believe this because that’s what they want to hear. They’d rather not have to put in the hard work. …But the truth is I feel obliged to argue that this study is flawed: The study claimed that 2/3 of Cancers were down to bad luck. The theory is that damage to DNA ie- mutations- is what causes cancer. Most of that damage to DNA occurs when a cell divides. Therefore the cells that divide fastest ie- the most often have the highest chance of mutation because that is when the error occurs. Cells that divide less often ie more slowly have fewer chances to accumulate errors. Since different tissues divide at different rates then some cancers are more down to ‘bad luck’.
However the study failed to look at the two commonest types of Cancer – Breast Cancer, which is highly linked to obesity and alcohol and Prostate Cancer. It also failed to take into account that the remaining 1/3 of those cancers that they said were not just down to bad luck included some of the commonest like Lung Cancer which is categorically caused by Smoking and Basal cell which is caused by UV radiation. In other words some of the commonest Cancers are not included in the ‘bad luck ‘ category.
Some cancers ARE bad luck – but luck that you’ve inherited a gene or a propensity to develop a type of Cancer. We all know about the BRACA genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer. This is the gene that prompted Angelina Jolie to have a preventative double mastectomy and after this pregnancy she is considering removing her ovaries. That truly is bad luck. There are other genes too, but not everyone with those genes gets cancer. It is true that yes, we accumulate DNA damage as we age. However the uncomfortable truth is that certain things DO accelerate that DNA damage…and they tend to be the things that are fun and lifestyle dependent.: Sun exposure, cigarette smoke, high alcohol consumption, red, charred meat, and fat and sugar. Weight gain and lack of exercise. We’ve all heard it. These things are especially true for the common cancers like bowel and lung cancers. A healthy lifestyle has even been shown to reduce the chance of relapse. So much so that when I was on the cancer CCG in London we were trying to arrange exercise classes for cancer survivors on the NHS. So, having a healthy lifestyle means you are less likely to get Cancer at a younger age, and if it’s in remission you are less likely to relapse. Now, I am not saying “Oh it’s your fault you got cancer because you did “dis dat and de odder” Of course not…it’s a horrible thing to happen. However thee are things we can do to help prevent some of the commoner types of Cancer. Some of them aren’t as fun as lying on the beach drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and biting into a shark and bake or a BBQ admittedly….but maybe this is the price we have to pay for living longer and therefore having more time to acquire DNA damage.
This is something that the European cancer Code seeks to address in the- ’12 Ways to reduce your Cancer Risk’
The other thing you can do is to catch cancer at an early or even pre- cancerous stage before it gets out of control. This is basically the basis of Cancer Screening. Now, we can’t screen for all cancers, but it makes sense to screen for the ones we know are common, and treatable if we catch them early enough. Pap smears or cervical screening tests for precancerous changes in the cervix that if treated do not develop into cervical cancer. Bowel screening usually starts as a pre- malignant polyp, which if removed prevents cancer. This is why Doctors recommend at a minimum, screening for Bowel Cancer by testing your poo for blood, or better yet an endoscopy (camera test up the bum) to look for and remove these polyps. Breast Cancer screening is controversial but most experts agree that screening from age 45 is a beneficial thing.
In Summary, don’t smoke, eat healthily, exercise and get screened!
1.‘Variation in Cancer Risk Amoung Tissues can be Explained by the Number of Stem Cell Divisions’ Tomassetti and Vogelstein DOI:10.1126/science.1260825