Cancers are groups of destructive cells that no longer serve the body and instead hijack our cells’ normal functions. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells that grow and divide to make up every part of us—from our fingernails to our hearts. Cancer disrupts this natural process by spreading and forming nests of cells that harm the body.
Usually, when cells age or lose function, the body repairs them or targets them for programmed cell death while the body remains healthy. If these cells aren’t monitored, they can become progressively abnormal through a process called dysplasia, and eventually become cancerous.
As cancer cells grow, they become increasingly chaotic and take resources from healthy cells to feed their growth. Initially, cancerous cells form, but eventually, they will progress to and invade surrounding tissue and may metastasize, or move to other areas of the body.
AM I AT RISK?
There are two underlying reasons we get cancer:
- Nature (or genes)
- Nurture (or environment)
“Nature” in this case refers to genes and inherited risk. Our DNA lays out the genetic script for our lives, and it is passed down from parents and ancestors. It is the hand we are dealt and is the same reason we may share our parents’ facial features or hair. An example of a genetic influence on cancer risk in prostate cancer.
While the issue is complex and includes social and economic factors, men of African descent are genetically more likely to develop prostate cancer. There is evidence that biological differences exist between prostate cancers in men of African descent and men of other ethnicities. Rather than reacting to this knowledge in despair, though, men of African descent can instead use it to empower themselves by getting screened early and regularly, and by changing their diet to reduce the risk.
Nurture, on the other hand, is all of the external influences that shape our growth and development. Some, we have no control over—like our mother’s environment during pregnancy or the neighborhood in which we grew up. On others we can have more influence—like bacon for breakfast, smoking a pack a day, or the stress we feel at our jobs.
Nurture, or our environment, impacts how genes are expressed, and possibly whether they are even expressed at all. Epigenetic research shows that small, consistent changes can affect not only our own cancer risk, but also that of our children and grandchildren. These ‘modifiable’ risk factors empower us to take small daily actions to decrease our chances of getting cancer.
It is important to be aware of a family history of cancer and not just because of shared genes but because we also share an environment and many daily practices with our family. We often eat the same things, move about the same and even have the same views on life. If you have a family history of cancer, keep in mind that while you can’t change your genes, you can make choices every day to reduce your risk.