Concepts regarding cancer and its causes cleared up

By By Meghna Balakumar Staff Writer

“That can cause cancer” is the most common reaction from my family members when they see me talking on my cell phone, warming food up in the microwave or surfing the Web on my laptop. In today’s world, pretty much anything and everything seems to be capable of causing cancer.
According to a National Cancer Institute study, it is estimated that 1,529,560 men and women will be diagnosed with cancer and 569,490 men and women will die of it in 2010. Luckily, one of CHS’s own students, and my cousin junior Nachu Bhatnagar, was able to be one of the 960,070 survivors.
Although there are many claimed causes of cancer, there does not seem to be a clean line between the truths and the fallacies. The first step to understanding the differences is to understand what cancer actually is.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a disease in which there is uncontrolled growth of malignant cells. These cells divide to form tumors that grow and interfere with normal bodily functions.
“Cancer is the common name given for thousands of different diseases, [and] saying that someone has cancer is like saying that someone has an infection,” said Johns Hopkins oncologist Eric Schaffer, who is also treating Bhatnagar. “What we know now is that cancer is always caused by some dysregulation in the way certain proteins are made. Cancer is always caused by a cell that is either growing too rapidly or does not die when it is supposed to–then that cell can eventually lead to clinical cancer.  That happens because the proteins that are coded by our DNA have made some kind of error.”
There are multiple ways that our DNA can fail us.
“That can be a DNA mutation or translocation (that is when large pieces of a chromosome break off and attach to other chromosomes they are not supposed to), a problem with the DNA that causes it to make too much or too little normal protein; there can be a problem with the RNA (DNA makes RNA, which makes protein) or how the RNA is processed, and finally there can be a problem with our immune system,” Schaffer said.
What causes Cancer?
There are multiple causes of cancer, including damages or mutations to DNA that prevent the cell from correcting DNA damage by killing itself,  such as, carcinogens, genes, age and any disease that debilitates the immune system.
“This is the hundred-million dollar question,” Schaffer said. “This question is what occupies at least half of oncology researchers, most cancers are caused by errors in the DNA that we cannot control either by our actions or by our emotions.”
Although, according to Schaffer, this is not true of all cancer, for it is known that there is a direct correlation between smoking and small cell lung cancer and bladder cancer or chronic alcohol use, liver cirrhosis and hepatic carcinoma, cancer of the liver. 
“However, at this time almost all cancer we see we think is just bad luck,” Schaffer said.“Of course we are working on ways to change that luck.”
Top 6 Confused Concepts about Cancer
1) Milk causes Cancer. Somewhat true. According to an article published by The Cancer Project, men who avoid consumption of dairy products lower their risk for prostate cancer. A large intake raises blood levels of the IGF-1 growth-promoting hormone, which can result in a pituitary tumor.
Precautionary Tip: Males, lower your intake of milk. Females need not worry.
2) Cell phones cause Cancer.  Not true. The cell phone itself does not cause cancer but some people believe the radio frequency waves it emits can cause the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, the closer the cell phone is to the head, the greater the exposure to RF (Radio Frequency) energy, although studies have not displayed a consistent link between cell phone use and cancer. According to an international study done by Interphone, a brain tumor research program, overall, cell phone users have no increased risk.
According to Schaffer, the study found no increase in cancer in casual users but that there was a trend towards a very slight increase in brain cancer in “heavy” cell phone users, who talk on their cell phone more than 30 minutes per day every day for 10 years.  However, the authors warned that there were many problems with the study design and most studies have not shown any increase in cancer with cell phone use.
Precautionary Tip: If one would like to take precaution, The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and FCC (Federal Communications Commission) advises that one limit the use of cell phones to short conversations and use conventional phones when available, as well as switch to a hands-free device to lengthen the distance of exposure to RF energy.
 3) Laptops cause Cancer. Not true. There have not been any current skin cancer cases linked to laptop use, although according to a study in the November issue of the Journal of Fertility and Sterility, men who rested the laptop on their lap had a risk of infertility due to the heat radiating from the computer to the scrotum.
Precautionary Tip: Put a heat barrier between you and your laptop or simply shift the laptop to an alternative surface.
4) Hair Dye causes Cancer. Not true.  It is believed that some aromatic amines in hair dyes are carcinogenic in humans. According to the FDA, there is inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, there was no strong evidence of an increase in the risk of cancer among hair dye consumers, although some facets linked to hematopoietic cancer and other cancers that have shown evidence of increased risk in one or two studies.  Studies are still being conducted to determine the truth, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Precautionary Tip: Avoid use of hair dye. Use natural substances such as Henna instead.
5) Microwave ovens cause Cancer. Not true.  Many people believe that the radiation from microwave ovens cause cancer. According to an article by the American Cancer Society, non-ionizing radiation has not been established as a carcinogen. It is not clear as to how non-ionizing radiation could increase cancer risk because studies of lab animals have generally not found that it increases the risk of cancer, making it even less likely to affect humans.
Precautionary Tip: Use a gas stove and reduce the use of microwave.