Every day we hear of a friend, or a friend of a friend, or some celebrity getting cancer. We are positive that we didn’t hear about so many people getting cancer 25 years ago when we were young. Surely there must be something wrong with modern life that this disease afflicts so many of us today. Those looking to blame modernity for this usually find the culprits in pollution, plastics, and processed food. And chemicals. And don’t forget kale, or rather too little of it.
I vaguely remember a textbook of pathology that I last read in medical school saying, and I paraphrase — “the biggest risk factor for death is life.” The more years we are alive, the more likely we are to die. Life expectancy at age 75 is much lower than life expectancy at age 10. Accidents and injuries tend to get us young. But most other causes of death are likely to get the older among us. What is true of most causes of death is true of cancer too.
Highlighting the relationship between age and death is not just me being cute. It’s essential in the context of cancer. American Cancer Society tells us that 87% of all cancer cases occur in individuals 50 years or older. Why? Each day that we are alive, our DNA has a small chance of mutating. Some of those mutations cause cancer. The risk may be minuscule each day, but over time it adds up. An article from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine tells us how our risk of getting cancer increases with age.
Uzma was not one of the 87 percent. Her diagnosis and death came before she turned 50 years old. That still doesn’t change what the data tells us about the link between age and cancer for the majority of us.
As an interesting aside, the table above tells us that or risk of dying from cancer is about one in five across most age groups. But after age 60 those odds start falling. That’s because, as we get older, a greater number of chronic diseases — heart disease, kidney disease, consequences of over-consumption of food, alcohol or drugs — start competing with cancer to kill us.
The longer more of us live, more of us will get cancer. This relationship is vital to keep in mind when looking at the link between cancer and modern life. Let’s take a look at world life expectancy.
It is only in the past 50-100 years that people started living past the age of 50 years, the cutoff after which almost 90% of all cancers are diagnosed.
So, it’s true, we are hearing of more people being diagnosed with cancer than our grandparents did. But it’s mainly because more people are living longer. Yes, there is evidence of all other sorts of risk factors. Smoking, alcohol, and obesity carry cancer risk. As do sunlight, air travel, and certain chemicals. And managing those risk factors will lower the odds of getting cancer.
But the number one risk factor for cancer is age. Is a non-modifiable risk factor — that is, we can’t do anything to stop that we age. And that simple fact leads to only one lesson — each day that we are alive, we must truly live.