Can You Catch Cancer?

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By Karen Cicero for Completely You

Cancer has to be the scariest thing in the world. Yes, I know cure rates are up, and early detection is better than ever. But it can still act so fast. My friend’s mom died of bladder cancer less than nine months after it was diagnosed. And just recently, I asked a little girl who was performing in a play with my daughter when her mom (whom I vaguely remember meeting once) was going to pick her up from practice. She looked at me and said, “My mom had cancer and she died.”

Just a week or two after putting my foot in my mouth, I ran across a study from The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. It estimated that more than 2 million new cancer cases each year (approximately 1 in 6) are caused by infection. And a disproportionate number of them -- about one-third -- occur in people younger than 50 years old. For the details, I called Dr. Goodarz Daneai, an assistant professor of global health at the Harvard School of Public Health, who wrote an accompanying commentary for the study.

Danaei explained that infections can cause cancer because “certain viruses, bacteria or parasites may actually alter the cells’ DNA and change the pattern of cell division,” he said. “And cancer is essentially abnormal, uncontrolled cell division.”

So how can people avoid the types of infections that may lead to cancer? “Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines,” said Danaei.

I really don’t think of vaccines for adults -- except the one for the flu, of course. He encouraged me to check out the vaccine schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The HPV vaccine, for instance, helps prevent cervical cancer, and the hepatitis vaccines help stave off liver cancer. “And there’s a whole slew of studies looking for a link between other types of infection and cancer,” he said.

This is a total wake-up call. I’m adding vaccines to the list of questions to ask my doctor next month. Please do the same.

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Karen Cicero

Karen Cicero is Completely You’s Need to Know blogger. A health journalist and magazine editor with more than 15 years of experience, she has contributed to such publications as Prevention, SELF and Health, and she has edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine.