Cancer is Not a Genetic Disease

The headlines about it are a dime a dozen these days. “New Mutations Discovered Driving Malignant Melanoma,” so says Science Daily. Similar reports make it into the news continuously. This is no surprise, of course, since billions of dollars are now being spent on the search for genetic causes of cancer.

A genetic explanation for cancer has two very enticing characteristics for the conventional medical world. First, cancer explained by mutations takes treatment possibilities out of the hands of those diagnosed with cancer and places treatment squarely in the hands of high-tech medicine. Second, the genetic research programs, the genetic diagnostic tests and the genetic therapies that flow from all that are extremely lucrative financially for the medical industry.

It is unquestionable that the vast majority of cancers are not genetic in origin. They are caused by lifestyle factors. The data on this is abundantly clear. It is a fact that is tragically overlooked by a medical system incapable of embracing lifestyle changes as a central therapeutic program. The unspoken rationale goes something like this: Sure, lifestyle factors lead to the occurrence of most cancers. However, once cancer has occurred, it is driven by some set of genes that do the dirty work. Thus, therapies need to focus on the genes, because once cancer develops it’s too late to pay attention to lifestyle.

There are many problems with this kind of thinking, but let me address two of them.

The first problem is in thinking that the genes that get “mutated” and drive cancer growth are actually mutations. Mutations are random events. There is an equal probability of finding mutations at any location along the genome. But in fact, the mutations found in cancers are not random at all. Very specific genes are getting activated, while very specific other genes are getting turned off. This is happening in nonrandom ways. This is not just me saying it; studies have documented the nonrandom distribution of mutations in cancer cells.

By analogy, a researcher looking into the problem of traffic in Los Angeles might notice that all of the ignitions in the cars have mutated into the “on” position. Of course we know that ignitions being in the “on” position play a role in traffic problems, but obviously that mutation isn’t really a mutation; it’s on because people decide to go somewhere in their cars. Likewise, the set of genes that become active in cancers are active for specific reasons. Genes aren’t randomly turned on in cancer cells; specific genes are turned on to carry out activities that subsequently promote cancer. It’s a cart/horse issue.

The second problem with thinking cancers are driven by mutations is that a wide range of important therapies get cast aside in favor of high-tech interventions. Ironically, over 700 “genetic therapies” for cancer have now been developed, yet not a single one has been shown to significantly improve outcomes over non-genetic therapies. Even the widely used Oncotype testing for breast cancer, which is purported to tell the probability of recurrence based on a genetic profile of tumor mutations, has been found to give little more information than labs that were used previously. It does, however, cost over $4000 each time it is run. And always remember in the discussion about health care costs that money spent on health care is also money earned by someone else.

The expression of genes is regulated by specific molecules. Those molecules are not patented, not synthesized in a lab, not designed by chemists. They are supplied through the diet. One of these molecules is called butyrate and is produced by the healthy gut bacteria when they digest soluble fiber. This is one critical link between our digestive function, our genetic health and our cancer risk.

The second molecule is known by its chemical make-up, which is called a “methyl group.” Various nutrients in the diet serve as methyl donors, and these compounds get sprinkled over the DNA to regulate when genes are turned on and off. If butyrate and/or methyl groups are in short supply, then a primary regulator of genetic expression is lost. Correcting digestive health and function and supplying methyl groups in the diet are not stand-alone cures for cancer. Nothing is a stand-alone cure, alternative or conventional. However, it is silly not to supply these nutrients if the goal is long-term regulation of the genes that awaken to meet the needs of the cancerous cell.

High-tech medicine searches for high-tech causes and high-tech cures for cancer. This program has consumed billions of research dollars, employed tens of thousands of researchers, resulted in thousands of published papers, led to hundreds of patents and enormous profits, motivated perhaps millions to participate in fundraising walks, runs, jogs, bike races, swims, parades and other events. But the real results this genetic emphasis has produced in terms of cases prevented or successfully treated are dismal, and supremely so.

Headlines are notoriously deceptive. The promises of genetic cures for cancer are a mirage. And while the medical industry continues its unrelenting drive for high-tech remedies, cancer patients would be wise to learn more about the wide range of therapies available to them to help bring cancer under control. The high-tech therapies will employ a lot of people, but they are very unlikely to save many lives.