Family Health: Answers to some common questions about cancer

Most people know the basics of cancer – that it happens when abnormal cells divide out of control, sometimes invading surrounding tissues. You might also know that it’s second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S.

That adds up to many lives touched by this disease, and it brings up many questions. Here are some common ones, along with answers:

What causes cancer?

Cancer doesn’t have just one cause. Although it always starts with abnormal – or mutated – cells, that can result from many, many different things. In some cases inherited gene mutations – mistakes in how genes formed – make a person more likely to get a specific type of cancer. A person’s lifestyle also influences cancer risks. That includes things like tobacco use, diet and exercise. Environmental factors, such as too much sun exposure and some types of pollution can also cause cancer. Other cancers are linked to infections – for example, cervical cancer is most often caused by the human papillomavirus.

If I have cancer in my family, am I certain to get it?

No. Only a small portion of cancers are directly inherited – about 5 to 10 percent. Increased cases of cancer in a family usually happen because the members share lifestyle habits like smoking and poor diet. You can change your personal risks by adopting a healthier lifestyle. For more information on heredity and cancer, visit the American Cancer Society at

I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Will I have the same treatment as a friend with this disease?

Not necessarily. As with other types of cancer, factors such as its size and whether it has spread help determine your treatment.

For example:

  • Some breast cancers can be removed with lumpectomy, which leaves most of the breast intact. With others, the whole breast must be removed.
  • Chemotherapy is often used, but the specific drug may vary as well as the timing of treatments.
  • Radiation therapy also can vary in timing and duration.
  • Some cancers respond to hormone therapies while others don’t.
  • Drugs called targeted therapies may be added to some cancer treatments.

Your care team also considers your age, general health and your own preferences when they design your treatment plan.

I quit smoking 10 years ago. What is my cancer risk now?

You’re still at a higher risk than someone who never smoked. However, your risk is dramatically reduced compared to a current smoker. And it will continue to fall the longer you stay smoke-free.

Can dietary supplements help prevent cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, taking vitamins or other supplements has not been proven to prevent cancer. If you’re having chemotherapy or radiation therapy, tell your doctor before you try a supplement. Some of them can interfere with these treatments.

Will maintaining a positive attitude help my cancer treatment work better?

There is no scientific proof that being positive can give you an advantage during treatment, and you should not feel guilty if you can’t remain cheerful. However, staying active and keeping in touch with family and friends may help you deal with your cancer and treatments.

Support groups such as these can also help:

Shawn Lake writes for the Community Cancer Care Center at Community Medical Center.