Chronic diseases may be risk factors for cancer

By RACHEL HUANG and CINDY JIANG | February 15, 2018



After testing, chronic disease patients showed an increased risk for cancer.

Researchers in the United States and in Taiwan have found a potential correlation between chronic diseases and cancer risk. In this study, Chi-Pang Wen, a professor at the National Health Research Institutes in Zhunan, Taiwan, and his team have suggested that chronic diseases and markers should be taken into account while studying cancer development and mortality.

Chronic diseases are typically long-lasting and incurable by vaccines or medication. They may also hinder the everyday lives of those afflicted with these illnesses. Chronic diseases include arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Hepatitis C, heart failure and much more. Because these illnesses cannot be cured, the only treatment for these patients is either to prevent or to decrease the severity of symptoms. 

A cohort study involving 405,878 participants with no history of cancer was set up in Taiwan to investigate the role of eight common chronic diseases, or disease markers, on cancer risk. These participants were followed for an average of 8.7 years.

Disease markers are substances or measurable medical signs that indicate the presence of a condition. In this study, the diseases and disease markers evaluated were diabetes, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular markers (blood pressure, total cholesterol and heart rate), chronic kidney disease markers (proteinuria and glomerular filtration rate) and gouty arthritis marker (uric acid).

An increased risk of cancer was observed for all eight diseases and markers individually. The eight different diseases were each given a score to show the risk of developing cancer and cancer death. 

The highest score obtained for the risk of developing cancer was 2.21-fold, indicating that those with chronic diseases are 2.21 times more likely to develop cancer. The highest score observed in risk of developing cancer was four-fold. 

One study in the medical journal The BMJ associated these high-score risks for developing cancer and cancer death with 13.3 years of life lost in men and 15.9 years in women.

However, a correlation doesn’t necessarily mean a causation. Wen and his team have shown that cancer and several chronic conditions share many risk factors. But that also means that the treatments used in chronic diseases may also be helpful in treating cancer.

In the study, scientists also tested the effect of physical activity on cancer risk and cancer death. They found that the risk of cancer development and mortality due to chronic diseases and markers in those who exercised regularly experienced a nearly 40 percent reduction when compared to those who didn’t participate in some form of physical activity.

The conclusions drawn from the study displayed that the combination of chronic diseases attributed to more than one fifth of new cancers and more than one third of cancer deaths in the observed population. 

These statistics are comparable to the five major lifestyle risk factors — smoking, insufficient physical activity, insufficient fruit and vegetable intake, alcohol consumption, and obesity — combined.

Despite the harsh truth that this study brings to light, there is a silver lining. 

Dr. Xifeng Wu, a researcher from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, shared her view on the subject.

“We believe that exercise is a promising approach to reduce the cancer risk associated with chronic diseases and markers since our results showed that physical activity is associated with a nearly 40% reduction in the cancer risk associated with chronic diseases or markers,” Wu said, according to ScienceDaily. 

“In addition to physical activity, avoiding smoking and alcohol consumption, maintaining healthy weight and healthy diet are also important in cancer prevention strategies.”

When we talk about cancer, we usually perceive the disease as one that is extremely difficult to find a cure for. Certainly, after one is diagnosed with cancer, there are extensive resources for treatment. Yet minimizing the risks of developing cancer is also an important part of combating the disease. 

Cancer is quite a complicated disease in that, even under controlled environments, unpredicted factors may affect the final diagnosis. Ultimately, the disease is caused by mutations to the DNA within cells. However, there is a long list of risk factors which include age, personal habits, family history, health conditions and environment.

Sophomore Grace Xu found the new research hopeful. 

“While it’s discouraging that cancer may be caused by reasons uncontrollable by the individual, it’s empowering that the research results show how strong the impact of physical activity is. Change to our health can happen with novel research results and new pharmaceuticals, but it’s also important not to discount our own efforts,” Xu said.

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