Seventy-seven percent of all cancers are diagnosed in people over 55. So we should understand cancer as a disease of aging. Although young people get cancer, it is rare. When it happens, it often makes the news and the marketers of cancers have a field day with it. But please, let’s have some perspective.
When you read about cancer studies in the newspaper or online, you need to understand what they are really saying. So here is what the lingo means:
• Lifetime risk: This describes the probability of a person getting cancer over the course of his or her entire life. So if you are 95 years old and get skin cancer, you immediately are entered into the same statistic as a person who is 50 and gets cancer. This term serves to increase the likelihood of getting cancer without specifying age and thus scares us more, leading us to believe cancers are more prevalent in the entire population than they really are in different age groups.
• Relative risk: This term means a comparison of the risk of developing cancer for people with certain traits to the risk of getting the same cancer by people without those traits. For example, women with a first-degree relative with a history of breast cancer (mother, sister, or daughter) are about twice as likely to get breast cancer as women without the family history. Note that your relative could have been 90 years old or 40 years old when she got breast cancer. The statistics do not distinguish between the two, yet making the distinction is crucial.
• Genetic risk: While 5 percent of all cancers are hereditary, the incidence of cancer in people is unlikely to be from the inherited gene but rather from mutations — damages to the genes that occur during the person’s lifetime.
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