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Cancer is more than just 'bad luck'

Posted by: Research 8 January 2015

Last week a number of national newspapers such as The Guardian, Daily Mail and The Independent reported that many different types of cancer arise mainly due to ‘bad luck’ rather than the effects of lifestyle choices. The story came from a piece of research published by scientists from Johns Hopkins University over in the USA.

Over the weekend an uproar of commentary has appeared on the internet (excellently summarised in this blog post from CRUK) scrutinising the work and how it has been reported. The researchers were trying to work out why cancer is more common in some tissues than others. Using previously published papers for 31 different cancers (including pancreatic cancer) they looked at the estimated risk of getting cancer over a lifetime, and how often stem cells divide in each tissue. Stem cells are specialised cells which constantly divide to replenish the tissues in our body. As these stem cell divides random mutations or mistakes can occur which can in turn drive cancer growth. Essentially, the researchers were able to establish a mathematical link between the number of times stem cells divide (i.e. within a tissue) and the occurrence of cancer in that tissue.

However, there is a distinct difference between what happens at the level of an individual tissue and what happens to individual people in a population. Other factors should be taken into account, such as the environmental and your lifestyle. Whereas the researchers themselves support the idea that lifestyle choices can help prevent cancer, the media has suggested that  the results of the research mean that ‘bad luck’ alone causes 2/3rds of cancer cases.

We are keen to focus on what the messages reported about this research mean for pancreatic cancer. We do not know what causes pancreatic cancer, and it is difficult to diagnose and to treat effectively. Random genetic mutation (‘bad luck’) may have a part to play in the chance of developing any cancer. But there are also important lifestyle choices that individuals can make to reduce their risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

At Pancreatic Cancer UK our message is clear:  Around 37% of pancreatic cancers in the UK are linked to lifestyle and there are known risk factors for the disease which may mean someone is more likely to develop pancreatic cancer:

  • Cigarette smoking – more than 1 in 4 pancreatic cancers in the UK are caused by smoking. Using smokeless tobacco increases the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity and diet – being overweight or obese increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, with around 1000 cases a year in the UK linked to excess bodyweight. Eating processed meat may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Age- the risk of developing pancreatic cancer increases as people age
  • Genetics – people with a family history of pancreatic cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease.
  • Diabetes – people with type I or II diabetes have roughly twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
  • Chronic pancreatitis – chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

If you’d like to know more, we have an in-depth facts about pancreatic cancer section on our Information and Support pages, here.