Epigenetics and breast cancer – How can we rule our genes and not let our genes rule us in the fight against cancer.
Psychiatrist Dr. C F Johansson (MA MBBS MRCPsych)
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are switched on or off, and the impact that this switching has on our chances of developing certain diseases. Some diseases- such as the neurological condition Huntingdon’s- are thought of as purely genetic: if you are unlucky enough to have the gene, you will get the disease at some stage. But most diseases, including cancer, do not have quite such a clear cut link to our genes.
For example, there is a clear link between depression and heart disease: people with depression are more likely to get heart disease and people who suffer with depression following heart disease are more likely to die from their illness.
Genetics and Cancer
Genetics do play a role in the development of cancers and there are certain breast and bowel cancers where this role is particularly strong. This means that if one of your parents has the condition, then your chances of getting it are also high. However, while a family history can increase your chances of developing a cancer, your destiny is far from set and there is much you can do.
Why your choices really count
We know that our behaviour impacts our chances of developing cancer. Obesity and diet, smoking and perhaps even stress, may switch genes on and off. Switching these genes on and off is what may significantly affect your chances of developing cancer, and it is not only your chances to consider. Fascinatingly, the lifestyle choices you make may also continue to affect the genes in your own children and grandchildren. This means that being obese, suffering severe stress, or drinking alcohol, can affect whether your genes are ‘on’ or ‘off’ in future generations. The idea of these changes being passed down the generations goes against our previous understanding, which did not figure in lifestyle choices of previous generations, and gives us even greater incentive to look at how we live and the affect it can have on our health.
More recent discoveries
Recently there has been a lot of excitement in the media about ‘epigenetics’ and breast cancer. The research has now shown that breast cancer might be a number of different diseases with potentially different treatments. These cancers are differentiated by what genes are ‘on’ or ‘off’, and even how you might respond to treatment is influenced by these genes. In fact, am epigenetic therapy was shown to prolong lives in cancer patients by switching particular genes ‘on’ (rather than simply killing dividing cells like chemotherapy does). This shows the importance of lifestyle choices not only in preventing cancer, but in recovering from it and the important role our genes and choices can play in our own cancer treatment and survival.
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