Cancer and Tobacco Control Men's Health Pseudoscience Women's Health

Separating cancer fact from fiction

Written by Wilma Stassen

We’ve been told that everything from baby bottles to Brazilian Blowouts can cause cancer. Now, Health-e News separates cancer fact from fiction.

ElderlyJoan Deare lived a healthy life – she didn’t smoke or drink excessively, and ate healthily and exercised regularly.

No one in her immediate family had ever had cancer. So when she started getting stomach aches in mid-2010 she took an over-the-counter remedy and carried on as usual.

Although the pain persisted she still didn’t suspect anything serious, and when she was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome at the end of that year, she didn’t think to ask for a colonoscopy to check that it wasn’t cancer.

“I trusted my doctor’s opinion and attributed the symptoms to rich meals, never suspecting anything too serious,” says Joan, a former social worker who often counselled cancer patients herself.

When her symptoms didn’t improve with medication or diet, she went back for a second opinion. Eventually in August 2011, Joan was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. After radical surgery and months of chemotherapy, Joan was declared cancer-free.

“Cancer has helped me to expect less from life, but also to make the most of it,” says Joan, who now advocates regular cancer screening, especially when you experience inexplicable symptoms. “Keep on going, but don’t deny your gut feeling.”

It’s not all about your genes

Joan is one of about a million South Africans alive today that have beaten cancer, according to Dr Carl Albrecht, who is the Cancer Association of South Africa’s (CANSA) head of research. She is also part of a growing group of people who developed this dreaded disease for no apparent reason.[quote float=”right”]Cancer-causing agents could be in your beer, whiskey, wine or boerewor

Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal and start to grow uncontrollably due to damage to a person’s DNA or genes. In some cases, people inherit defective genes from their parents, giving rise to hereditary cancers, which make up around 10 percent of all cancers.

In the other 90 percent of cases, people are exposed to a carcinogen, or something that damages their DNA – this can be from something they ingest, inhale, or otherwise come into contact with.

“It is good news that only ten percent of cancers are hereditary while the other 90 percent is caused by something in the environment – because if we can identify these factors we can remove them from the environment and reduce the cancer burden,” Albrecht tells Health-e News.  

The main cancer-causing culprit in the environment is tobacco, which is responsible for a third of all cancer cases. Diet is behind another 30 percent of cancers and an equal percentage of cancers are due to infections, hormones, radiation, chemicals or pollution, according to Professor Vikash Sewram, who heads the African Cancer Institute.

About nine percent of cancers are due to unknown causes.

Cancer’s causes – at home, on the table & on the braai

Research is continuously shedding light on possible links between cancer and chemicals we use everyday. Recently, University of Cape Town researchers found dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, in various hair-straightening products used in South Africa as part of Brazilian Blowouts.[quote float=”left”]High cancer risk occupations include painting, hairdressing and dry cleaning…

“Chemicals came under the spotlight with the Baby Bottle Scandal (see box) that highlighted the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA),” Albrecht says. “From there, the story has been unfolding and every other day you hear about another chemical in your home or kitchen that may be harmful.”

For instance, you’ll be surprised at how many carcinogens you encounter at a braai. Not only tobacco smoke is bad for your health, smoke from any burning material, including cooking fires are also laden with carcinogens.

That beer, whiskey, wine or whatever alcoholic beverage you prefer, contains ethanol, which can cause cancer when used excessively. Your boerewors might contain nitrite, a preservative with carcinogenic properties commonly used in processed meat, and that charred crust on your chop or steak contains the known carcinogens, heterolylic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Some occupations have also been linked to cancer due to regular exposure to carcinogens. High-risk occupations include painting, hairdressing, shift work, carpentry and joinery, dry cleaning, fire fighting, printing, textile manufacturing and welding.

Although scientists are working tirelessly to find new treatments, Albrecht says there is no magic cancer cure in the foreseeable future. Eradication of the disease will require a combination of new and affordable treatments and vaccines, greater prevention efforts, and stricter legislation around carcinogens, the same as with tobacco.

Protect yourself

It is impossible to protect yourself from everything in the environment that may be carcinogenic, but there are ways to limit your exposure. The first, and most obvious thing, is to avoid cigarette smoke – if you are a smoker, quit, and if you’re a non-smoker, stay away from other people’s smoke.

If you are not yet convinced to practice safe sex, here’s another reason to condomise – certain strains of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is transferred via sexual contact, cause cancer of the cervix, penis, anus, mouth and throat. There is a vaccine guarding against HPV and parents should ensure their children are vaccinated.

Also, don’t skimp on sunscreen – always apply generous amounts when going outside. A sunscreen’s Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is calculated on a 2mm-thick layer of sunscreen and applying scant amounts reduces the SPF and efficacy of the product.

There are also some cancer-safety shopping tips. Look out for the CANSA logo while shopping – these products have been tested or examined by CANSA and was found to be safe. Be careful handling slips and receipts made from thermal invoice paper, which contains BPA. Albrecht suggests washing your hands after handling it and placing receipts in a plastic bag in your handbag to avoid BPA contaminating other items. Also be weary of cling wrap that was applied in store – don’t freeze food products in the original cling wrap, rather transfer it to a container or zip-lock bag before freezing. – Health-e News.

An edited version of this story was first published by the Daily News on 22 December.

About the author

Wilma Stassen

Wilma Stassen is a reporter at Health-e News Service. She focuses on non-communicable diseases. Follow her on Twitter @Lawim


  • The above article is good but I felt that it doesn’t differentiate enough between the causes of cancer i.e the high level of alcohol use is important, as is smoking. Also the article doesn’t match with the list of carcinogens in the link. What is important for people is to understand their risk and how they can manage it. Another important issue is to understand the warning signs…
    But well done for highlighting the issue.