Cancer and Bad Luck

To all of my friends and colleagues in the field of sports medicine and cancer – I want to share a post I wrote last year on Oncology Massage Discussion board – based on a recently published article by John Hopkins MC relating to the “genetics of cancer”, where they detail that over 65% of cancers can be attributable to “bad luck”. Would be interested in your thoughts.

After reading this article I have nothing but sadness for the profession of medicine. In reviewing data, the authors conclude that over 65% of cancers are caused by "random" gene mutations in the DNA. Really? With over 80,000 industrial chemicals in industry (OHSA), and GMOs in many foods, exposures to toxins from fetus to grave, and (in the US) lack of physical activity, John Hopkins wants to throw in the towel and blame it all on bad luck. How scientific!


If we look at the research into environmental toxicity from the 1940s by former EPA researcher Wilhelm Heuper (above)) – one of the first environmental cancer experts in the US who was persecuted by the chemical industries in the 1950s, and read Epstein's classic report on the Politics of Cancer (1979), and dig deep into John Bailar's work on cancer prevention (1979, 1986), and the fantastic 1994 publication - Cancer Wars, by Robert Proctor, and the tens of thousands of research into the environment and cancer causality - one can only conclude that the authors have come to their conclusions through laziness, redundancy, and a pathetic sense of defeatism that is today's medical cancer industrial complex.


Bad Luck - how about bad research, bad analysis, bad conclusions, and bad researchers. For those of us who have followed the cancer field for the past 20+ years, and have read the real science in many areas (epidemiology, clinical studies, complementary medicine, environmental medicine, sports medicine, wellness, etc.) we have a pretty good idea how cancer comes about - and it's not bad luck. Most of the answers are there - you only have to go looking. If you cancel out the probable causes because of your inherent bias, then you have nowhere to go even when you start. I'm glad I work in sports medicine - because I now have a renewed sense of optimism that those who have worked in the complementary fields for decades now can move to the forefront because those who now hold the baton have dropped it - and can't find it with the lights on. We will work for the improved survivorship of all patients, and use healing methods that are cost effective and are specific to each patient. For those who continue to toil in their one dimensional space - move over, and tough luck.

The claim that sparked this controversy? That “bad luck,” more than environmental factors or inherited genes, affects whether someone develops cancer, implying that preventive efforts from smoking cessation to environmental cleanups were largely pointless.

Now the authors of that 2015 paper are back. In a study published on recently in Science, they double down on their original finding but also labor mightily to correct widespread misinterpretations of it. This time, using health records from 69 countries, they conclude that 66 percent of cancer-causing genetic mutations arise from the “bad luck” of a healthy, dividing cell making a random mistake when it copies its DNA.

The scientists go to great pains to explain that this doesn’t mean that two-thirds of cancers are beyond the reach of prevention. But understanding the role of these unforced errors “could provide comfort to the millions of patients who developed cancer but led near-perfect [healthy] lifestyles,” said cancer biologist Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, senior author of both the original study and the new one. “This is particularly true for parents of children who have cancer” and might blame the tragedy on the genes they passed on to their child or the environment they provided, he said.

“They did it right this time,” Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said of the authors. “In the first paper they upset a lot of people who are advocates for cancer prevention, and confused a lot of people,” by leaving the impression that most cancers are beyond the reach of prevention. “But a reasonable person can read this one and think, prevention is not useless.”

Separate research has shown that roughly 42 percent of cancers are preventable by, for instance, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and not being exposed to cancer-causing pollutants.  That’s according to their research.  In reality – quitting smoking, a health supporting diet, exercise, and stress reduction can reduce the odds of cancer diagnosis by over 70%.  Those are good odds.  There are still a lot of factors that can’t be controlled – such as pollution, etc., but in general, I believe that this article (and the 2015 version) provide a “scapegoat” for poor diagnosis, poor medical consultation, poor referral, and poor education in general from school systems (who would rather teach memorization), medical systems (who would rather promote procedures and drugs), and politics (who refuse to look at prevention as one of the hallmarks of medical “intervention” by funding large scale treatment research at prevention’s expense. 

Therefore – bad luck is no such luck.  It’s about learning, applying, and changing lifestyles when necessary to achieve a lifetime goal of “low risk” for cancer – and that is good luck indeed. 



Proctor, RL.  Cancer Wars.  Basic Books, New York. 1995. 

Epstein, S. S.  The Politics of Cancer.  Random House Books, New York, 1982. 

Couzin-Frankel, J.  The bad luck of cancer.  Science.  2015.  347(6217):12. 

Nowak, MA, Waclaw, B.  Genes, environment, and “bad luck”.  Science  2017.  335(6331):1266-67.