What is cancer and how is it caused?

Cancer is a disease caused when abnormal cells divide rapidly. Although cancer isn’t caused by a single factor, it is made more likely by many risk factors. With 15 million people being diagnosed of cancer yearly, it is also one of the leading causes of death in the world. However, the risk of cancer can be reduced by making changes to your lifestyle.


The human body is made up of many different types of cell (small, living structures that form whole organisms). These cells divide continuously throughout their life to form new cells and replace old ones. Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells divide uncontrollably fast in a very short space of time to form a tumour (a swelling) in the primary location (where the tumour forms). Then, the tumour spreads to other parts of the body to form a metastasis (a type of tumour) in the secondary location (where the tumour invades).


DNA is the molecule in our cells that contains genetic information in the form of genes. The genes contain instructions to make molecules which have many important functions. Mutations are random errors in genes that causes the molecule it produces to become faulty. Cancer is caused by mutations of two types of genes: genes that help cells grow and genes that slow down cell growth, causing cells to divide and reproduce very quickly.


Whether someone develops cancer or not is random, but there are factors that can make it more likely:

  • Open fire stoves are a very popular method of cooking in certain parts of Africa. However, pollutants such as soot in the smoke increases risk of cancer, by entering the bloodstream to penetrate cells and damage DNA.
  • Alcohol consumption is a major cause of cancer. In our bodies, alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde, which stops our cells from repairing DNA damage. This allows mutations to occur.
  • Elderly people are more likely to develop cancer. This is because over time, mutations accumulate and have a greater effect on genes.

Therefore, lifestyle changes such as reducing alcohol consumption and reducing use of open fire stoves can significantly lower the chance of getting cancer. Other preventative measures include avoiding tobacco and exercising regularly. In addition, research into cures to prevent cancer has shown promising signs recently, with a potential vaccine for ovarian cancer giving a 100% survival rate for 25 women in a small study. With the necessary funding, it is possible that one day, cancer will be cured.



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