What you can do to prevent cancer

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    Cancer is undoubtedly on the rise. Do you know what you need to do to avoid becoming an alarming statistic?

    What is cancer?

    There are more than 200 types of cancer. Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases which occur when cells become damaged and get out of control. 

    Cancer can start almost anywhere in the body, which is made up of trillions of cells. In all types of cancer, some of the body’s cells begin to “rebel” and stop following the rules of healthy cells.

    Healthy cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. Usually, the body has the appropriate number of each type of cell. The body produces signals to control how much and how often cells divide. When cells grow old or become damaged, they die with a process called apoptosis and new cells take their place.

    When cancer develops, however, this orderly process breaks down. Changes in the genetic code (DNA) of cells make them grow out of control. Cells with damaged DNA have the ability to escape apoptosis and survive. These cells then start dividing without stopping and may eventually form a tumor.

    Picture obtained from: http://www.healthykarnataka.org/operational-guidelines/cancer-cervix/overview-of-cervical-carcinoma

    In this figure, the division of normal cells is compared to the division of cells with damaged and uncontrolled DNA. This eventually leads to cancer initiation. 

    Many cancers form solid tumors, which are masses of tissue. Cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, generally do not form solid tumors.

    Cancerous tumors are malignant, which means they can spread into or invade other tissues. They break off and travel to distant places in the body through the blood or the lymph system, where they form new tumors far from the original tumor.

    Unlike malignant tumors, benign tumors do not spread into or invade other tissues. Benign tumors can sometimes be quite large, however. When removed, they usually don’t grow back, whereas malignant tumors sometimes do. Unlike most benign tumors elsewhere in the body, benign brain tumors can be life threatening.

    A significant factor that allows the survival of cancerous cells is their ability to form new blood vessels, known as angiogenesis. Angiogenesis allows them to have their own supply of oxygen and nutrients necessary for their growth.

    Characteristics of cancer cells:

    1. Anarchic growth
    2. Ignoring the signals to stop growth that is given by nearby healthy cells
    3. Resistance to cell death (apoptosis)
    4. Ability to form new blood vessels (angiogenesis), that allows the continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tumor
    5. Potential to divide and reproduce infinitely
    6. Ability to invade the body’s tissues and metastasize


    Cancer takes years to form

    Not all rebel cells lead to cancer. This unorderly cell behavior happens regularly over one’s lifespan, without necessarily leading to cancer. Actually, cells that can develop into cancer are often present in our bodies; they’re simply waiting for something to push them over the edge, to cause them to behave abnormally, to divide, multiply and invade.

    Cancer development is gradual. It evolves over many years or even decades. This large window of time allows us the ability to intervene in order to keep potential tumors in a dormant state and to prevent them from developing and maturing.    

    Balance between cancer promoting and cancer preventing factors

    More than half of the cancers occurring today are preventable by applying knowledge that is already available to scientists. There are many modifiable risk factors related to the development of cancer. The list is big, however, smoking, being overweight, lack of exercise and a bad diet are the main ones.

    When it comes to diet, a low intake of fruits and vegetables together with a high intake of refined western foods, rich in sugar, salt and bad fats create an internal environment that promotes cancer. Click to Tweet

    On the contrary, a carefully selected diet has the ability to boost the body’s natural defenses against cancer. By strengthening the immune system, enhancing the body’s ability to detoxify, reducing inflammation and choosing a diet rich in natural anti-cancer molecules, the body can fight cancer at its first stages of existence and increase the body’s ability to stabilize tumors over very long periods of time.

    So, in a person’s lifetime, the balance between the cancer promoting and the cancer preventing functions of the body will be the determining factor of the body’s ability to remain healthy and keep cancer away.

    Most cancers are preventable

    The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30-70% of cancers are preventable. Data from other official sources like the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), estimate that eating a healthful diet, being active and maintaining a healthful weight can prevent as many as 35-40% of cancers.

    The AICR suggests diet, weight and physical activity as the 3 cornerstones of cancer prevention and advises people:

    1. To choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat and avoid processed meat
    2. To aim to be at a healthy weight throughout life and
    3. To be physically active every day in any way for 30 minutes or more


    1. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/what-is-cancer#differences-cancer-cells-normal-cells
    2. Sharon R.Pine and Wenyu Liu. Asymmetric cell division and template DNA co-segregation in cancer stem cells. Frontiers in Oncology; 21 August 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fonc.2014.00226 or http://www.healthykarnataka.org/operational-guidelines/cancer-cervix/overview-of-cervical-carcinoma
    3. World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/en/, accessed 22/10/2014
    4. American Institute for Cancer Research: http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/, accessed 22/10/2014
    5. American Institute for the Research on Cancer: accessed on 20/1/2016 at: http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/cancer-prevention

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