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| Environmental Factors |
Several environmental factors affect one's probability of acquiring cancer. These factors are considered carcinogenic agents when there is a consistent correlation between exposure to an agent and the occurrence of a specific type of cancer. Some of these carcinogenic agents include X-rays, UV light, viruses, tobacco products, pollutants, and many other chemicals. X-rays and other sources of radiation, such as radon, are carcinogens because they are potent mutagens. Marie Curie, who discovered radium, paving the way for radiation therapy for cancer, died of cancer herself as a result of radiation exposure in her research. Tobacco smoke contributes to as many as half of all cancer deaths in the U.S., including cancers of the lung, esophagus, bladder, and pancreas. UV light is associated with most skin cancers, including the deadliest form, melanoma. Many industrial chemicals are carcinogenic, including benzene, other organic solvents, and arsenic. Some cancers associated with environmental factors are preventable. Simply understanding the danger of carcinogens and avoiding them can usually minimize an individual's exposure to these agents.
The effect of environmental factors is not independent of cancer genes. Sunlight alters tumor suppressor genes in skin cells; cigarette smoke causes changes in lung cells, making them more sensitive to carcinogenic compounds in smoke. These factors probably act directly or indirectly on the genes that are already known to be involved in cancer. Individual genetic differences also affect the susceptibility of an individual to the carcinogenic affects of environmental agents. About ten percent of the population has an alteration in a gene, causing them to produce excessive amounts of an enzyme that breaks down hydrocarbons present in smoke and various air pollutants. The excess enzyme reacts with these chemicals, turning them into carcinogens. These individuals are about twenty-five times more likely to develop cancer from hydrocarbons in the air than others are.