Health & Fitness

About 40 percent of cancers are preventable. The rest are bad luck.

It sounds innocent enough – just “random mistakes made during normal DNA replication.”

But that – called the “unavoidable R factor” by authors of a recent study – likely explains why no matter how healthy you or your family is, there is still a chance you’ll get cancer just due to sheer bad, dumb luck.

“We all agree that 40 percent of cancers are preventable,” Bert Vogelstein, one of the study’s authors, at a press conference, according to NPR. “The question is, what about the other cancers that aren't known to be preventable?”

While most of those mistakes in DNA are harmless, if they occur in a cancer driver gene two or three times, it turns a healthy cell into a cancer cell.

So what can you do to stop it?

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“Nothing. Right now, nothing,” Vogelstein said. The study says that now that the R factor has been recognized, future developments in medicine could make it preventable in the future.

The provocative findings by Vogelstein and Cristian Tomasetti at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center found that about 66 percent of cancers are due to that unavoidable R factor, 29 percent are due to the environment and about 5 percent are due to hereditary factors. Those numbers vary depending on the type of cancer.

It stirred controversy among scientists, according to NPR, because critics say the public will use the findings to justify ignoring warnings about public health. The authors address that issue in their conclusion.

“Recognition of a third contributor to cancer — R mutations — does not diminish the importance of primary prevention but emphasizes that not all cancers can be prevented by avoiding environmental risk factors. Fortunately, primary prevention is not the only type of prevention that exists or can be improved in the future,” they wrote. “Secondary prevention, i.e., early detection and intervention, can also be lifesaving. For cancers in which all mutations are the result of R, secondary prevention is the only option.”

This story was originally published March 24, 2017 2:34 PM.

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