Research indicates that only 5-10 percent of cancers are hereditary. This means that there is much we can do to reduce our chances of a cancer diagnosis. Being careful in the sun, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, reducing alcohol consumption, living tobacco-free and following a schedule of cancer screenings are all proven prevention strategies within our own control.
We can add two more effective strategies to that list: practicing safe sex and getting immunized.
Not everyone understands the connection between sexual activity and cancer or that there are protective vaccinations. The two topics are related: both unprotected sex and a lack of immunization increase our chances of contracting a virus that can lead to cancer.
What viruses can lead to cancer?
Viruses enter the cells inside our bodies and then reproduce and make more viruses. Some viruses insert their own DNA into the host cell, which then affects that cell’s genes. When that happens, the cell is more susceptible to becoming cancerous.
Here are the most common viruses linked to cancer.
Human papillomaviruses (HPVs): This is a group of about 150 related viruses. All are spread by contact and more than 40 types are spread by sexual contact. About a dozen HPVs are known to cause cancer – though most people infected with HPV will not develop a cancer related to the infection.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV): EBV is a type of herpes virus that is best known for causing infectious mononucleosis or “mono.” EBV is passed by kissing, coughing, sneezing, and sharing drinking and eating utensils. Most people infected with EBV don’t experience serious health problems, but it does increase the risk of a handful of cancers.
Hepatis B (HBV) and Hepatitis C (HCV): Both HBV and HCV can cause long-term infections that increase a person’s chance of liver cancer. These viruses are spread through unprotected sex, sharing needles during injection drug use, childbirth and blood transfusions – though that is rare in countries that test blood for these viruses.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, doesn’t appear to cause cancers directly. But HIV infection increases a person’s risk of getting several types of cancer. This is because HIV weakens the body’s immune system, which might let other viruses thrive.
How can I protect myself against these viruses?
There are two lines of defense against contracting a virus that can lead to cancer: Hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations and practising safe sex.
The HPV vaccination is estimated to prevent 90% of HPV cancers when given to children before they are exposed to the virus. It is recommended that boys and girls receive the vaccine (two shots, six to 12 months apart) at age 11 or 12. The idea is for children to be vaccinated before HPV exposure.
The hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended for all children, with a first dose administered shortly after birth, and for adults at risk of exposure. Those adults include healthcare workers, those with certain medical conditions (including HIV), and injection drug users.
Finally, while sex isn’t the only way that viral infections spread, it is always helpful to take precautions within our control. When it comes to intimate contact, it is recommended to use condoms, limit sex partners, and avoid sex partners who have had many other sex partners.
Put safe sex and immunizations on your list of cancer-prevention strategies. The more healthy choices you make, the more likely you can live cancer-free.
Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre
46 Point Finger Road, Paget
(441) 236 – 1001