Our Genes and Cancer

August 18, 2015 · By Tracey F. Weisberg MD
The field of Medicine has evolved with time and is at a crossroads now in how we think about a disease condition and potential treatments. With the sequencing of the human genome, we have never ending possibilities to define, understand, and potentially reverse human ailments.

We understand now that there are two ways in which we can measure our genetic material and use this information to improve our chances of beating cancer. The first is through the identification of cancer predisposition genes.

Cancer predisposition genes are genes that are inherited from our mother or father and are given to us when we are merely a single cell organism in our mother’s womb. A tip off to knowing that such a gene is present in you or your family may be if cancer is diagnosed at very early ages in your family, if individuals have more than one cancer in their lifetime, or if very unique cancers occur in your family. A predisposition gene is faulty, meaning that is unable to function normally and dictate the formulation of the intact, healthy gene product or protein.

Such genes are easily measured in blood. A genetic counselor usually helps your physician assess the possibility of such a gene’s presence in you is sufficient to warrant such testing. If this type of predisposition gene is identified in an individual, there are frequently better ways to screen for cancer other than those universally applied to the general population and defined by the American Cancer Society. Sometimes, knowing that an individual is at exceedingly high risk for development of cancer may result in the potential for heightened levels of screening, preventive surgery, or initiation of drug therapy that is felt to be preventive. It should be noted however, that only a minority of human cancers are due to this type of genetic event.

We also now have the ability to measure multiple genes in actual patient tumors. Tumors in part develop because there are mutations in genes that allow them to grow in a person. There also however, are factors in a human’s immune system that allow these tumors to exist and avoid removal by the body’s natural processes of dealing with invasion of entities that challenge our health. Capitalizing on tumor DNA mutations, the abnormal proteins that result from mutant genes, and factors that destabilize our own immune systems will ultimately provide deeper understanding to why cancer occurs and strategies for eradication.

So what can we do to protect our genome? We cannot really control the genes that we are gifted from our parents. An awareness of your personal family history is advisable, and if an illness or condition repeatedly afflicts members of the family, genetic counseling and testing for cancer predisposition genes might be advisable.

The majority of cancers however, are not silently passed from parent to child, but acquired over a lifetime of exposing ourselves to our modern environment. Our diets, our activity level, and substances that we choose to expose our body to over time all have a role in creating human disease. Some of these factors directly affect cellular DNA, and others may have more direct effects on our immune system by perhaps accelerating the aging of our natural killer cells. Some of these exposures are now well defined, like smoking cigarettes and encountering exposures to certain types of viruses. Others are less obvious, like some of our nutritional choices or medications perhaps advised in the past that now we know have long term consequences.

It is clear that the world is rapidly changing and we have the experience of living in a dynamic period of time. We can communicate in an instant around the globe. We have encyclopedic knowledge available at our fingertips in our mobile devices. There are medical advances that are close to being a reality that were science fiction for our grandparents. Our challenge will be to use this technology to improve our health and make smarter and more accurate treatment recommendations. However, there is no substitute I know of yet that can protect our body and immune system better than movement, healthy mind, and a healthful diet.

Science will find solutions to complex problems. We need to take ownership of our personal health to minimize the need to ever need to access these marvelous medical advances.

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