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Cofactors that Increase Cancer Risk

Many things you do increase your risk for cancer and the more risk factors you have, the greater your risk. Avoiding these risk factors after you are diagnosed with a cancer can increase your chance for a cure.

Smoking and being infected with the human wart virus (HPV) both cause fatal squamus cell cancers of the head and neck. A study from the University of Michigan shows that smokers who have an HPV-linked cancer are six times more likely to have a recurrence than those who have never smoked, and two- thirds of patients with HPV-linked tumors were current or former tobacco users (Clinical Cancer Research, February, 2010). Among those with HPV-linked tumors, six percent of those who never smoked had recurrences, compared to 19 percent of those who had smoked in the past and 35 percent of current smokers. Almost all cases of cervical cancers are caused by HPV, but only one woman of 250 infected with the HPV virus develops cervical cancer. If you are infected with HPV and smoke, you increase your chances of developing cervical cancer 15 times (Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, November 2006).

Lifestyle factors that are associated with increased cancer risk (as well as heart attack risk) include: smoking, taking more than two alcoholic drinks per day, being overweight, not exercising, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, eating too much saturated fat from mammals, eating burnt food (PAHs and HCAs), lack of vitamin D, lack of sunlight, and anything that increases risk for diabetes. Other risk factors include promiscuous behavior that exposes you to hepatitis B and C viruses, human papilloma virus (HPV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), Human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus (HTLV-1), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), or Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV8); working in jobs that expose you to radiation, chemicals such as asbestos, benzene, benzidine, cadmium, nickel, or vinyl chloride, certain metals, pesticides or solvents; taking certain medications and hormones; repeated exposure of your skin to excess sunlight or getting too many X rays.


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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Is smoking cigars or pipes safer than smoking cigarettes?

Probably not. A study from Columbia University Medical Center in New York shows that cigar and pipe smokers are exposed to the same carcinogens as cigarette smokers to markedly increase risk for permanent lung damage called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Annals of Internal Medicine, February 2010), as well as cancers of the mouth and lungs.

The researchers proved that pipe and cigar smokers inhaled large amounts of smoke by measuring blood levels of cotinine from inhaled nicotine. Pipe smokers had 20 percent, and cigar smokers 10 percent of blood levels of cigarette smokers, but the levels are high enough to demonstrate considerable absorption of nicotine that would increase cancer risk and lung damage. Spirometry showed that pipe or cigar smokers had more than double the rate of airway obstruction and lung damage, compared to nonsmokers.

For solid cancers to grow and spread, they have to constantly produce their own fresh blood supply. Because nicotine is an angiogenesis factor that promotes blood vessel growth, it increases risk for virtually all solid cancers throughout the body.


Dear Dr. Mirkin: Can I get enough vitamin D, without risking skin cancer, by sitting next to a window with the sun shining through?

No! Both window glass and sunscreens reduce, but do not prevent, skin cancer and they almost completely prevent your skin from making vitamin D.

Excessive exposure to sunlight causes skin cancer, wrinkling and skin aging. The only blockers of all the sun's harmful rays are roofs and thick clothing. The sun emits two kinds of ultraviolet rays that can damage your skin; the long UVA and the short UVB rays. UVA causes primarily aging and UVB causes primarily skin cancers and sunburns, but all ultraviolet rays can cause sunburns, skin cancers and wrinkling.

Glass windows do not block all ultraviolet rays. Glass blocks most of the short UVB rays, but only 30 percent of the UVA rays, so windows prevent sunburns but they do not prevent aging and wrinkling. Since only UVB can cause your skin to make vitamin D, you get no vitamin D whatever from the sun's rays that pass through glass.

Tanning booth salon lights are advertised not to cause cancer because they emit primarily UVA rays and not UVB. But UVA causes cancer, wrinkling and skin aging, even though it is less likely to cause burns. Sun tan bulbs that have no UVB also give you no Vitamin D.

Sunscreens block most of the UVB and some of the UVA, so sunscreens reduce your chances of developing skin cancer and burns. However, they do little to prevent wrinkling and aging. Most shirts allow some UVA rays to reach your skin, so wearing a shirt markedly decreases your chances of being burnt, but long periods in the sun with most porous shirts can increase your chances of wrinkling and aging. Most sunscreens are easily washed from your skin by sweating and bathing. Applying sunscreens every day fixes the screens to your skin so they don't wash off as easily.

To meet your needs for vitamin D from sunshine, you must expose skin to direct sunlight. Since cumulative exposure to the sun's rays over a lifetime cause skin cancer, try to expose the skin that is least exposed normally to sunlight. We wear short pants as often as we can and usually do not apply sunscreen on our legs.


Recipe of the Week:

Quick Shrimp Curry

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book - it's FREE

June 21st, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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