Can Getting Sick Give You Cancer? New Research Says Sometimes, Yes

by | May 11, 2012 at 4:14 PM | Health

By Melanie Haiken, Forbes.com Contributor

The prestigious journal The Lancet came out with a study today that merits a double-take. After reviewing the data for 27 different cancers in 184 countries, the researchers concluded that two million cases of cancer a year — or one in in six cases — are caused by viruses, bacterial infections, or parasites. Which means, according to the researchers, that one sixth of all cancers are preventable. Yikes.

Which viruses and bacteria can lead to cancer?

  • Helicobacter pylori
  • Hepatitis B
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • Hepatitis C

Nearly one third of these two million cases are in people younger than 50. In women, cervical cancer caused by HPV infection was responsible for half of the preventable cancers. In men, 80 percent were gastric and liver cancers, triggered by infectious agents. Hepatitis B and C are, of course, dangerous to all. A Johns Hopkins study a few years ago found that in men, the majority of oral cancers were also caused by HPV.

Of these, the only one not curable is Hepatitis C, which must be prevented. Helicobacter pylori can be treated with antibiotics; vaccines are available for Hepatitis B and HPV.

The team, from the International Agency on Research on Cancer in France, says most of these cases are in the developing world. Still, there are some thought-provoking lessons for all of us. The Lancet, for example, a few years ago called for all girls in the EU to be vaccinated against HPV. In the U.S. it’s recommended, but not mandatory.

Bad water, in many countries, is responsible for the transmission of bacteria and parasites, which can be silent killers, eventually infecting the digestive tract and liver.

With treatment success rates not wildly impressive for many types of cancer, and the risk of recurrence always looming over those who do survive (see tips for preventing cancer recurrence), cancer prevention is key for all of us, first or third world alike.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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