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What Is Cancer And What Causes It?

Date Published 20.04.2016
Topic Lifestyle Insurance

What Is Cancer And What Causes It?

The Big C, growth, malignancy and tumour. All these words describe cancer. It is a scary and powerful word. Cancer is the nation’s number one fear but more than a third of us think getting the disease is down to fate and there is nothing we can do to avoid it.



  • There are more than 200 types of cancer, each with different causes, symptoms and treatments.
  • More than 30,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in Ireland, the number is expected to reach 40,000 by 2020.
  • The five most common cancers in Ireland are non-melanoma skin cancer (the most common and treatable form of skin cancer), prostate cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer and lung cancer.
  • 1 in 3 people in Ireland will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.


What is Cancer?

Cancer is a generic term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. It is also disease of the cells in the body. The body is made up of millions of tiny cells. Different parts of the body such as organs, bones, muscles, skin, and blood are made up from different specialised cells. All cells have a centre called a nucleus which contains genes made from DNA. The genes control the functions of the cell.


What is Cancer?


One defining feature of cancer is the rapid creation of abnormal cells that grow beyond their usual boundaries, and which can then invade adjoining parts of the body and spread to other organs. This process is referred to as metastasis. Metastasis is the major cause of death from cancer.


We all have a risk of developing cancer. Many cancers seem to develop for no apparent reason. However, certain carcinogens - cancer causing factors - are known to increase the chance that one or more of your cells will become abnormal and lead to cancer.


Possible causes of cancer


  • Tobacco

If you smoke, you are more likely to develop cancer of the lung, mouth, throat, oesophagus, bladder and pancreas. Smoking is thought to cause about 1 in 4 of all cancers. About 1 in 10 smokers die from lung cancer. The heavier you smoke, the greater the risk.


  • Age

The older you become, the more likely you are to develop a cancer. This is probably due to an accumulation of damage to cells over time. Also as you get older, the body's defences and resistance against abnormal cells is not as good.


  • Radiation

Too much sun exposure and sunburn (radiation from UVA and UVB) increase your risk of developing skin cancer. The larger the dose of radiation, the greater the risk of developing cancer. This is one of the most common forms of cancer in Ireland.


  • Viral Infections

Some viruses can help to cause some cancers. But this does not mean that these cancers can be caught like an infection. What happens is that the virus can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous.


  • Bacterial infection

Some researchers think that particular bacteria may produce cancer causing substances in some people. But research into this is at an early stage. If bacteria do play a part in causing cancer this could be important in cancer prevention. Bacterial infections can often be cured with antibiotics, so getting rid of the infection could be a way to reduce the risk of these types of cancer.


  • Immune system

People with weak immune systems, for example people with AIDS or on immunosuppressive therapy, have an increased risk of developing certain cancers. Chronic infections or transplanted organs can continually stimulate cells to divide. This continual cell division means that immune cells are more likely to develop genetic faults and develop into lymphomas.


  • Genes

Some cancers have a strong genetic link. It is not common, but there are such things as cancer families. These families have a much higher incidence of cancer than other families in the population


  • Alcohol

Alcohol can increase your risk of a number of cancers. The National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) found 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol related cancer in Ireland every year, around 500 of these die from the disease. Consumption of alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, bowel cancer, and throat cancer, which includes pharyngeal cancer, laryngeal cancer and cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus).


  • Red and processed meat

Bowel and stomach cancer are more common in people who eat lots of red and processed meat. Red meat includes all fresh, minced and frozen beef, pork, lamb or veal. Processed meats have been preserved in some way other than freezing and include bacon, ham, salami, sausages, spam, corned beef, black pudding, pâté and tinned meat.1


  • Overweight

After choosing not to smoke, keeping a healthy weight is the easiest way to reduce your chances of getting cancer. Obesity increases the risk of bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast and uterine (womb) cancer in women.


  • Hormone Replacement Therapy

HRT is an effective treatment for menopausal symptoms, but it can increase the risk of cancer.


Could a healthy lifestyle help?


Is a healthy lifestyle the answer?

Unfortunately not necessarily, not everyone who leads an unhealthy lifestyle will get cancer and the opposite is also true. People who lead a healthy lifestyle also get cancer.


The body has certain mechanisms which may protect us from developing cancer. In many cases it is likely that there is a combination of factors (such as genetic make-up, exposure to a carcinogen, age, diet, the state of the immune system that play a role in the diagnosis of cancer ) playing a part in triggering a cell to become abnormal, and allowing it to multiply out of control into a cancer.


With this in mind and out of concern for the tremendous financial burden that a cancer diagnosis can inflict on cancer patients and their families, AIG Direct has come up with the Cancer Cover policy. Cancer Cover will give you peace of mind with a cash sum of €32,000 with Standard cover, or up to €64,000 with Platinum Plus cover in the event of a cancer diagnosis. Click here for more information and get a quote.


The article was written by the MedOnline Medical Team. MedOnline is an interactive web/mobile clinic. The views expressed in this article are those of MedOnline and do not necessarily reflect the views of AIG Europe Limited  


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