Many men and women are afraid that they are doomed to cancer if their family members have been diagnosed. Women are taught that if their mothers or aunts had breast cancer, they are more likely to be diagnosed as well. But much of this fear is unjustified and based on myth, not fact. Up to 95% of all cancers are caused by somatics, not genetics. [i] It's less about the genes we are born with, and more about how we live.
Up to 95% of Cancers are Caused by Somatics
While DNA damage occurs in our cells daily, we can also be born with mutated DNA. However, according to the National Institutes of Health, “Inherited genetic mutations play a role in about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers.”[ii] This means that up to 95% of all cancers are caused by somatic, or induced, cellular mutations. It’s no wonder, given that each of our cells experience more than 60,000 occurrences of DNA damage daily.[iii] With enough damage, DNA mutations can occur, leading to propagation of mutated cells in the tissue - even cancer.
Genetic vs Somatic Cellular Mutations
Germline, genetic mutations exist in the germ cells (egg and sperm), and are passed on to offspring. The genetic mutation is present in all the cells of the body. Genetic mutations may be silent, may cause disease, or may contribute to genetic diversity.
Somatic mutations in a cell are neither inherited, nor passed on to offspring. They are also referred to as acquired mutation. These mutations can occur spontaneously in any cell in the body (“soma”) except germ cells. The mutation is limited to the descendents of the original cell that developed the mutation and not present in other cells in the body. Somatic mutations may be silent, may cause disease and cancer, or may contribute to genetic diversity.
What Causes DNA Damage?
DNA damage, abnormal chemical structure in DNA, occurs in our cells as a result of naturally occurring endogenous cellular processes and exposure to exogenous agents. When our cells are exposed to exogenous agents from things like tobacco smoke, radiation, heavy metals, microbes, toxic chemicals, etc., DNA damage occurs. It also occurs as a result of cellular metabolism and activities, where each cell hosts endogenous agents, can experience oxidative stress and creates waste products.
How Does DNA Damage Cause Cancer?
“DNA damage and mutation have different biological consequences. While most DNA damages can undergo DNA repair, such repair is not 100% efficient. Un-repaired DNA damages accumulate in non-replicating cells, such as cells in the brains or muscles of adult mammals and can cause aging. In replicating cells, such as cells lining the colon (and breasts), errors occur upon replication of past damages… These errors can give rise to mutations or epigenetic alterations. Both of these types of alteration can be replicated and passed on to subsequent cell generations… and possibly contribute to progression to cancer.”[iv]
How Can We Reduce DNA Damage?
While it is impossible to eliminate DNA damage completely, we can reduce it by reducing cellular exposure to harmful exogenous and endogenous agents. We can do this by attempting to sustain an optimal healthy environment for our cells.
As an example, consider the carrier of cells, the blood. Plasma is the fluid in the blood that suspends and bathes blood cells. This fluid is composed of about 92% water, 7% vital proteins and clotting factors and 1% mineral salts, sugars, fats, hormones and vitamins.[v] Each red blood cell it suspends carries about one billion molecules of oxygen.
So the quality of ingredients like water, oxygen, minerals, fats, etc. effect the quality of the environment for our cells and bodily functions. See the article Our Daily Bread to learn more about nourishing ingredients. But other factors affect the environment as well, like stress, in its many forms.
We have some control over some of what comes into our bodies, i.e. food, drink, supplements, skin products, sun and medical radiation, but less control over the quality of environmental air, noise, electromagnetic fields, chemical and heavy metal exposure, microbial infections, etc. A logical strategy is to optimize those things for which we have control and hope it overcompensates for the things for which we have no/little control.
While we know that agriculturalal chemicals can be toxic to our cells, many of us ingest pesticides, fungicides and herbicides in our diet.
–icide = the act of killing; a toxic agent.
But there is more to it than just choosing a healthy lifestyle. While unhealthy lifestyles, i.e. excessive eating, drinking, smoking, drugs, stress, etc. are common causes of DNA damage, many of us are compromised in our natural ability to repair DNA damage.
We Can Repair Some DNA Damage
Our bodies are incessantly repairing DNA damage. However, our ability to repair is limited. Hence we age, a consequence of living. For some, DNA damage is so acute that it is irreversible and can lead to mutation, epigenetic alteration (non-genetic DNA alternations) and cancer. For some individuals, methylation (a process by which methyl groups are added to DNA), histone modifications (histone proteins associated with DNA), and/or important detoxifying processes are not functioning optimally and pre-dispose cells to DNA mutation and disease.
Our Best Defense
To learn more about any nutritional deficiencies, metabolic or detoxifying process compromises, or the genetic alternations that can compound these, consider consulting with a functional health provider for testing. (There are several listed throughout the Community Resource Directory at The Thermogram Center.) These same providers can help you to improve deficiencies, i.e. dietary and lifestyle changes, supplementation, cleanses, etc.
Given that “we are what we eat and don’t eliminate,” attempting to be optimally nourished and detoxed is crucial to minimize DNA damage and support DNA damage repair.
For Those Concerned About Breast Cancer
Only 5% to 10% of all breast cancers have a genetic cause.[vi] So 90% to 95% are somatically-induced. Hence the importance of being nourished and detoxed, managing the risk factors that contribute to breast cancer, and proactively living a preventive lifestyle.
"Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The function of the BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast cells growing normally. But when these genes contain abnormalities or mutations that are passed from generation to generation, the genes don't function normally and breast cancer risk increases... About 2% of all people with breast cancer have an abnormal BRCA gene."[vii]
55% to 65% of women who inherit a BRCA1 mutation and around 45% of women who inherit a BRCA2 mutation are expected to develop breast cancer by age 70.[viii],[vix] If you have inherited either gene mutation, you may be able to improve your odds with the before-mentioned strategies.
[viii] Antoniou A, Pharoah PD, Narod S, et al. Average risks of breast and ovarian cancer associated with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations detected in case series unselected for family history: A combined analysis of 22 studies. American Journal of Human Genetics 2003; 72(5):1117–1130. [PubMed]
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