Your Genes Aren’t Your Destiny

Some of our health is pre-determined by the luck of our genes, but new evidence shows that we can influence the outcome even when our genetics are stacked against us.

One third of all cancers are caused by lifestyle choices: tobacco, alcohol, diet and obesity. The cancers caused by our habits can sometimes be prevented and are not solely based on genetic programming, as many believe.

A detailed review of a large population that investigated lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to cancer was published in a supplement to the British Journal of Cancer this past December.

Lead author Dr. Max Parkin, professor of epidemiology at Queen Mary University, London, states, “Many people believe that cancer is ‘in the genes,’ and that it is the luck of the draw whether they get it.” However, he adds, “Looking at the evidence, it’s clear that about 40% of all cancers are caused by things we mostly have the power to change.”

Surprising findings

Fourteen factors were studied to determine their influence on the likelihood of getting cancer; some of the results were not as expected. For instance, eating fruits and vegetables had a strong protective effect against getting cancer in men. On the other hand, being overweight for women was worse than drinking too much alcohol. In fact, being overweight for women is the second highest risk factor for cancer—second only to tobacco.

Genes vs Lifestyle
Obesity is when body fat accumulates over time as a result of a chronic energy imbalance: the calories consumed exceed the calories expended. Genetics play a role, but the links are not clear. What is clear is that increased activity and reduced caloric intake will reduce weight, and any amount of weight loss will improve health and help prevent cancer.

{loadposition incontent_health6}The fact that we can help modify what genetic pre-dispositions we were born with should be happy news because it puts some of the control back in our hands, and not just in a poorly dealt deck.

Top Lifestyle Risk Factors for Cancer
(in order of importance)

For Men

  • Tobacco
  • Lack of fruits & vegetables in diet
  • Environmental exposure to carcinogens
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Overweight/obesity

For Women

  • Tobacco
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Infections (such as HPV)
  • Too much sun or tanning beds
  • Lack of fruits & vegetables
  • Alcohol consumption  (I was so happy that this one was closer to the bottom of the list!)

About the author: Diana Tucker is president of Medical Market Intelligence and now that her children are grown she is pleased that she didn’t eat them when they were young.