What is a DNA mutation and how does it cause cancer?
DNA is the blueprint that controls how your body looks and functions. It is present in normal healthy tissue and in cancer cells. When healthy cells are exposed to toxins (like those found in tobacco), viruses, and physical or environmental factors, DNA can mutate. Mutations cause cells to function abnormally and catalyze cancer.
How does DNA mutate?
DNA mutations are changes in the behavior or structure of your normal DNA. There are many factors that can encourage cells to mutate, but for some people, they change without any known trigger. Some factors that are shown to encourage mutations include:
- Smoking and using tobacco products
- Exposure to sunlight’s UV radiation
- Inherited traits passed to you from a parent
- Aging and more
As your genes are exposed to these factors, certain proteins in them can malfunction, changing the way cells grow and reproduce. Some mutations can cause cells to grow out of control and form a tumor. In most cases, your genes will need to mutate several times to cause cancer. If cancer does develop, there are many ways to treat it and monitor further genetic mutations that may need different care. Often tests can be run to detect changes in a cancer tumor, allowing doctors to adjust your treatment quickly.
Can I prevent a mutation and lower my cancer risk?
Healthcare leaders have long supported healthy lifestyle factors to help reduce your cancer risk from environmental or lifestyle choices that raise your risk. Genetically linked cancers (cancer risks passed to you from a parent) only occur in about 5-10% of all cancer cases.
You can help support a healthy body and reduce your risk for cancer by:
- Protecting your skin from the sun—wear a hat, sunscreen, and avoid the sun’s strongest rays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- Eliminating tobacco products
- Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat diary
- Seeing your doctor for regular screenings. This may include blood or urine testing, advanced imaging studies like PET scans or mammography, and more depending on the area of the body being studied
- Reporting any symptoms that are new or different to your healthcare provider as soon as possible
Treating cancer differently with genetic monitoring
Doctors have spent years looking for a way to monitor cancers without having to take blood, do a biopsy or “invade” a person’s body. As scientists have learned more about the life cycle of a cancer cell, they found that as they die, tiny pieces of the cell DNA break away and circulate in the blood. These tiny pieces are filtered by the kidneys and then pass into the urine where they can be tested and monitored for new genetic changes that can help your doctor or healthcare team adjust cancer treatment quickly and effectively. This is called a “non-invasive” approach, and cancer testing developers like Trovagene are providing those battling cancer with much less intrusive options for monitoring.
Non-invasive testing can be a key tool for doctors and patients in the fight against most cancers. Right now, urine tests can identify a handful of genetic mutations that have been found in melanoma and cancers of the pancreas, ovaries, lungs and colorectal regions of the body. Researchers continue to develop additional tests that will identify other genetic markers as well.