Cancer results from mutations of certain genes that allow the cells to begin their uncontrolled growth. These mutations are either inherited or acquired. Acquired mutations are caused by repeated insults from triggers (e.g., cigarette smoke or ultraviolet rays) referred to as carcinogens. There is usually a latency period of years or decades between exposure to a carcinogen and the appearance of cancer. This, combined with the individual nature of susceptibility to cancer, makes it very difficult to establish a cause for many cancers.
The most significant avoidable carcinogens are the chemical components of tobacco smoke (see smoking). Dietary components, like excessive consumption of alcohol or of foods high in fat and low in fiber rather than fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants and necessary micronutrients, have also been linked with various cancers. Some cancers may be triggered by hormone imbalances. For example, some daughters of mothers who had been given DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage developed vaginal adenocarcinomas as young women. Aflatoxins are natural mold byproducts that can cause cancer of the liver.
Certain carcinogens present occupational hazards. For example, in the asbestos industry, workers have a high probability of developing lung and colon cancer or a particularly virulent cancer of the mesothelium (the lining of the chest and abdomen). Benzene and vinyl chloride are other known industrial carcinogens.
X rays and radioactive elements are also carcinogenic; the high incidence of leukemia and other cancers in Japanese survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the increased incidence of thyroid cancer after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster give evidence of this. Exposure to the ultraviolet radiation of sunlight is the leading cause of skin cancer.
Many other substances have been identified as carcinogenic to a greater or lesser extent, including chemicals in pesticides that leave residues on foods. The Delaney clause, an amendment (1958) to the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that prohibits even minuscule amounts of carcinogens in the food supply, has provided the impetus for the investigation of many such chemicals but has also been a source of controversy between industry and environmentalists.
In the early 20th cent., the American virologist Peyton Rous showed that certain sarcomas affecting fowl could be transmitted by injection of an agent invisible under the microscope and later indentified as an RNA-containing virus. Other research uncovered oncogenic, or tumor-causing, viruses, first in experimental animals and then in humans. The Epstein-Barr virus, a member of the herpesvirus group, has been linked with a number of human cancers, including the lymphomas that often occur in immunosuppressed people, such as people with AIDS. Several human papillomaviruses (HPV) have also been shown to initiate cancers. For example, some types of HPV cause genital warts known as condylomata acuminata, which can lead to invasive cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, or penis, and another human papillomavirus has been associated with some forms of Kaposi's sarcoma. In addition, hepatitis B has been shown to increase the risk of liver cancer. Bacteria have also been associated with cancer. For example, the Helicobacter pylori bacterium that causes many ulcers is also associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.