Getting cancer for most is not a matter of bad luck; it is a matter of bad choices. While a known medical problem for centuries, cancer is not a leading cause of death in many parts of the world. In the U.S. and other Westernized countries, however, cancer is an illness largely based on lifestyle decisions that primarily affects those older in age.
Cancers risks have long been thought to be a result of genetic and environmental factors. However, new research in the publication Nature shows that 70 to 90 percent of that cancer cases in Western countries are attributable to lifestyle choices, such as regular diet, lack of exercise, smoking or other controllable elements. This conflicts with previous research that suggested that more than half of all cancers could be chalked up to “bad luck.”
The new study showed that people who migrate from regions with low cancer rates some develop rates consistent with their new homes.
There are some facts about cancer that show up in several studies:
- Cancer commonly affects older people (which supports the lifestyle theory since the behaviors like smoking or poor diet would take a long time to manifest in abnormal cell growth). According to the American Cancer Society, 78 percent of all diagnoses of the illness in the U.S. are made in people who are 55–years-old or older.
- While people start having colonoscopies at age 50, and there are colon cancer cases in younger adults, the median age for colon cancer diagnoses in the U.S. is considerably higher. For women, it is age 73 and, for men, it is 69 years of age.
- Western Europe has the highest rate for breast cancer diagnoses; the rate is five times higher than incidence rates for east Asia and central Africa.
- The highest prostate cancer rates are in Australia and New Zealand.
- In poorer countries, cancer does not even make the top 15 causes of death in public records. That reflects the lower life expectancy rates and that many, particularly the young, succumb to things like malnutrition, AIDS, pneumonia, the flu, malaria and other causes. However, if someone in a poorer nation does get cancer, even one’s that are often regarded as treatable in the U.S., the illness is usually fatal.
- The primary exception to the low cancer rates in poorer countries is cervical cancer, which is a result of the human papilloma virus or HPV. In richer areas, there are vaccines. But HPV runs rampant today in those cultures without vaccines.
- Some countries that did not have high incident rates of some cancers are experiencing changes as their population adopts more unhealthy cultures. The best example of this is China, where smoking rates have skyrocketed and metastasized throughout the male population. Signs are that cancer rates are beginning to follow suit.
The outcomes are better for most malignancies diagnosed today, with early detection and more efficacious treatments, and 68 percent survive five years after a cancer diagnosis in America. While the new study shows that cancer is largely a Western problem attributable to lifestyle and age, 1 out of every 4 deaths in the U.S. is due to cancer-related illnesses. (Heart disease rates are even higher.)
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Cancer.org: Cancer Facts & Figures 2015
Nature: Substantial contribution of extrinsic risk factors to cancer development
New York Times: In Developing World, Cancer Is a Very Different Disease
Voice of America: Study: Most Cancers Result From Lifestyle, Not Bad Luck
Science World Report: What Causes Cancer? Avoidable Lifestyle Choices To Blame Over Genetics
U.S. Navy photo by Ensign Ann-Marie Al Noad (public domain)