Ask people what causes cancer and the usual answer you’ll get is diet, lack of exercise, sun exposure, smoking and ‘bad’ genes. Few, if any, will answer infections.
However, about 20 per cent of all cancers worldwide are caused by an infectious agent. Knowing about these could potentially save your life.
According to the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention there are several mechanisms by which infections can cause cancer. One of these is believed to be linked to chronic inflammation that can develop as a result of having one of these infections.
Another thought is that there is an association with genetic changes to the cells caused by exposure to one of these infectious agents – remember that cancer develops as a result of abnormal changes in the body’s cells.
In other cases, the infection can compromise the immune system making the body less able to defend itself against other cancer causing infections.
The infectious agents associated with cancer include but are not limited to the human papilloma viruses (HPV) associated with cervical cancer, H.pylori associated with stomach cancer, hepatitis B and C viruses associated with liver cancer, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) associated with a number of cancers and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Having one of these viruses does not mean that you will develop cancer. What it means is that you may be at an increased risk for developing the types of cancer associated with the virus at some time in the future.
The majority of people with a cancer-causing virus never develop cancer. You should remember that while the virus may be contagious, cancer is not contagious and cannot be ‘caught’ in the way we ‘catch’ an infection.
There are several things that one can do to prevent contacting these viruses in the first place. Many of these viruses are transmitted through sexual contact or exchange of body fluids. They can therefore be prevented by practising safer sex amongst other measures.
There are also immunizations against the virus that can prevent it from developing. One such immunization is against Hepatitis B and the United States Food and Drug Administration recently approved a vaccine against HPV.
If you are already infected with the HPV virus regular screening with a Pap smear can detect precancerous changes or early-stage cancers.