When someone gets cancer we want to know why. We want to believe there's a reason.
However, according to a study by oncologist Dr. Bert Vogelstein and biomathematician Cristian Tomasetti at Johns Hopkins published in the journal Science last month, the explanation is more like losing the lottery—often the real reason is not because you didn't behave well or were exposed to something harmful in your environment, it's just because you were unlucky.
In fact, Vogelstein and Tomasetti found that two-thirds of cancers could be attributed to bad luck rather than heredity or our environment. This bad luck presents itself as random DNA mutations, which accumulate in our bodies as our cells divide and appear to be responsible for several cancers.
Actually, 22 of the 31 these researchers looked at, including leukemia, bone, brain, ovarian, pancreatic and testicular cancer, were essentially due to biological bad luck (random mutations).
Heredity and environmental factors like carcinogen exposure played a more significant role in the other nine types, including colorectal, skin and smoking-related lung cancer.
Early detection in research
Overall, Vogelstein and Tomasetti attributed 65 per cent of cancer incidence to these random gene mutations, which can drive cancer growth. There’s no particular reason for these harmful mutations aside from randomness as our stem cells divide.
These results suggest that lifestyle changes like quitting smoking might help prevent some cancers, but may not affect others. Therefore, more research and resources need to focus on finding ways to detect these cancers early when they’re still curable.
Vogelstein and Tomasetti did not cover all cancers. They excluded breast and prostate because of unreliable stem cell division rates.
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