Information on this webpage is drawn from our 2005 report: Breast cancer - an environmental disease: the case for primary prevention, available free as a pdf, see Downloads. For current statistics and data, see our homepage.
Cancer is not a single disease. It is a type of disease. There are over 200 different cancers, and each occurs in its own way. What they have in common is that they all start in the same way – with a change in the normal make-up of a cell … Cells are constantly at work in our bodies, dividing and multiplying to repair damaged skin, maintain hair growth and perform a hundred other everyday tasks.
Damage to the genetic machinery of individual cells can trigger a series of miscalculations, altering a cell's normal function. When a gene is damaged by radiation or chemicals, or receives misinformation from a chemical messenger, and the mistaken signal is not corrected, the result is inappropriate or uncontrolled growth. This is the basis of cancer. We have learned that even irritation, as from chronic formaldehyde exposure, results in increased cell-turnover, the need for repair, and the potential for interference with repair … Some alterations may be reversed by a cell's innate repair mechanism; some alterations may go unnoticed; but other alterations become permanent and life-threatening, as when a cancer begins.
The susceptibility factor in cancerThe timing and duration of exposures to potential cancer-causing agents are additional crucial factors in the cancer process. In a healthy adult, damaged or alteredcells are constantly being repaired or removed from the body by the immune system. An immune system that is weakened (by illness, trauma, chemical and radiation exposure or age), or is under-developed (as in the very young), can compromise the repair process. Some of the substances (known from laboratory and animal tests) which damage or disrupt cells or cell functions are arsenic, asbestos, benzene, cigarette smoke, oestrogens, organochlorines, dioxins and radiation. Some directly damage the cell e.g. formaldehyde, others aid cancer progression e.g. oestrogens.
(Sources: Pepper et al/Parnell/Cornell University Breast Cancer Program)
Cancer in young peopleOnce a disease almost exclusively associated with old-age, cancer now affects all age groups, as shown by rising rates in young people. The Automated Childhood Cancer Information System (ACCIS) project, an epidemiological study of cancer incidence in children and adolescents in Europe since the 1970s, provides 'clear evidence of an increase of cancer incidence in childhood and adolescence during past decades, and of the acceleration of this trend.'
Steliarove-Foucher The Lancet 2004
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