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Cancer... Why me?

Published: 29 Mar 2017

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to wonder ‘why me?’ Is there something wrong with my body? Did I do anything to cause this? 

The truth is, cancer has been around since the beginning of time. The dinosaurs got it – trees get it – and every single person in the world has cells with the potential to cause cancer.

To help you understand what is happening to your body, let’s take a look at the science behind cancer, and what is going on at the forefront of medical research to eradicate the disease.

What causes someone to develop cancer? 

In simple terms, cancer is caused by genetic mutations in your DNA. Sometimes you are born with these mutations, which can increase your risk of developing cancer. Other times, your lifestyle choices – such as smoking, drinking and exposure to sunlight – can cause mutations to develop.

Another way you can develop cancer is through ‘mismatch repair’ of DNA. This is when cells are being naturally replicated in your body and an error occurs, causing them to mutate. 

Are any specific genes more prone to mutation? 

While forms of cancer are many and varied, scientists have managed to pinpoint a number of common genetic mutations linked to cancer. You may have heard of BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Another family of genes is ras, which mutate in around a third of all cancers, including colon, lung and pancreatic cancer. 

What happens when ras cells mutate? 

The problem with cancers caused by mutating ras cells is that it can be difficult to treat through existing medical treatments, and is prone to spreading. This is because the signals that control cell growth are interrupted, and cancerous cells keep on multiplying. 

Can I prevent cancer with gene switching? 

While our DNA is fixed from the moment of creation, medical experts have done a lot of investigation into switching out ‘faulty’ genes. Studies are still currently in their infancy, but in 2016 a group of researchers from The Francis Crick Institute found that some cancerous cells lack a protein called H1.0, which enables those cells to grow continuously.

In their initial tests, scientists were able to spontaneously switch the H1.0 protein back on. Although this didn’t prevent cancer from developing in the first place, it did slow down tumour growth, potentially reducing the severity of the disease. The Francis Crick Institute is now searching for drugs that can kick-start H1.0 production.

What other research areas are ongoing?

The volume of investment being made by the scientific and medical community to eradicate cancer is massive. In 2013, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) launched an initiative just to researching ras cells, in order to find more effective treatment options.

Targeted drugs and immunotherapies are being researched and refined all the time, to match treatments to the specific types of genetic mutations that cause different types of cancer.

What’s the best treatment for my cancer?

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, the best thing to do is discuss your case at length with your oncologist. While the basis of the disease lies in genetic mutation, as we said at the start of the article, there can be many different DNA and lifestyle factors that cause the disease to develop. Your treatment needs to be mapped to the particular type of cancer you have been diagnosed with.