Ever wondered how radiation both causes and treats cancer? Is occasional smoking dangerous? Can you inherit breast-cancer risk from your father's side of the family? Below, experts answer these questions and more.
GENERAL CANCER QUESTIONS
Q. Do artificial sweeteners cause cancer?
A: Despite all the Internet hoaxes and folklore, artificial sweeteners, including saccharin and aspartame, do not appear to cause cancer in humans.
—D. Milton Stokes, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., registered dietitian, One Source Nutrition, Norwalk, Conn.
Q: Can you inherit an increased risk for breast cancer from your father’s side of the family?
A: Yes. If either side of your family has a history of breast cancer, you may be at increased risk. But remember, you can have breast cancer without a family history, so do those monthly self breast-exams, and get mammograms when your health-care provider says it’s time.
—Abbie Abboud, M.S., C.G.C., board-certified genetic counselor, Minnesota Department of Health Newborn Screening Program
QUESTIONS ABOUT SMOKING AND CANCER
Q: I’ve been smoking for 20 years. Does it matter if I quit now?
A: It’s never too early or late to kick the habit. No matter how long you’ve been smoking, stopping now can prevent or slow the progression of diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart disease and many cancers.
But you don’t have to wait long to enjoy the benefits of not smoking. Soon after you stop, you’ll breathe easier, your heart rate and blood pressure will improve, and you’ll taste and smell your food better.
—Kevin O. Hwang, M.D., board-certified internist; instructor, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
Q: I only smoke occasionally, so that’s not really smoking, right?
A: Any smoking is smoking. People who inhale only one to four cigarettes a day are still more likely to die of lung cancer or heart disease than nonsmokers, according to a recent study. Binge smoking—that is, smoking only on the weekends, but possibly inhaling 20 cigarettes in one sitting, is also bad for you. In addition, light cigarettes are not safe to smoke. They contain harmful chemicals and tend to cause people to smoke more of them than regular cigarettes. Finally, nicotine is one of the most addictive substances. Every time you smoke, you take the chance that you will be drawn to smoke again.
—Nancy Deutsch, R.N., nurse and award-winning health reporter
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QUESTIONS ABOUT BRAIN TUMORS
Q: Do cell phones cause brain tumors?
A: So far, evidence suggests that they don’t. However, we need more studies (particularly longer-term ones) to decide for sure. Experts generally agree that if they do pose a threat, it’s very small. If you’re concerned, use an earpiece or a landline. In my opinion, worrying probably causes more trouble than the devices.
—Elizabeth A. Reid, M.D., neurologist with 14 years experience in private practice (retired), medical columnist
Q: Should I be concerned about frequent headaches?
A: Not if they're your usual headaches—the ones that go away with time or sleep or a simple pain reliever. The important thing is to recognize a headache that is outside the range of normal for you. Abnormal headaches and headaches associated with other symptoms warrant medical attention.
Q: How many headaches a week are normal?
A: Ideally, none. Most headaches are “normal” responses to environmental circumstances: inadequate sleep, stress, too little physical activity, dehydration and so on. Frequency is an issue if headaches interfere with life, or if you have to use medication more than a few times a week. (This can increase how often you have headaches.)
Q: Should I worry about the radiation in all the X-rays that I get over my life?
A: The general thinking today is that when it comes to radiation from X-rays, CT scans and nuclear medicine studies, the benefits outweigh the possible (and somewhat unknown) risks—if undertaken with a valid endpoint in mind.
Radiation effects over a lifetime are cumulative, so, while you should not worry, neither should you press you doctor to perform tests “just to make sure nothing is wrong.” Every diagnostic test should be undertaken only because a therapeutic decision depends on the outcome.
Q: How does radiation cause cancer?
A: Most scientists believe radiation causes random mutations of DNA, the genetic material in cells. At least two years pass between radiation exposure and cancer development. There’s no threshold dose, meaning any radiation exposure, miniscule or great, can cause cancer. However, the probability increases with the dose.
—Carol L. Kornmehl, M.D., board-certified radiation oncologist, St. Mary’s Passaic Hospital, New Jersey; author, The Best News About Radiation Therapy
Q: How does radiation cure cancer?
A: Therapeutic radiation targets certain areas of the body. Cancer cells, which reproduce more quickly than healthy cells, don’t survive as well. The time between daily treatments allows healthy cells to repair themselves in a way cancer cells cannot. Cancer survivors, however, can eventually develop secondary cancers in the targeted areas, albeit rarely.
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Last updated and/or approved: March 2012. Original questions and answers appeared in various issues of the former print magazine. Bios current as of those issues. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.