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Can Viral, Bacterial, or Parasite Infection Cause Cancer?

Can Viral, Bacterial, or Parasite Infection Cause Cancer?

The answer is yes, and the list of high risk infections continues to grow.
  • Do you or a loved one have a high risk for cancer infections?
  • Have you traveled to any areas where the infection risk is higher?
  • Do you have a lifestyle that might put you at higher risk?
If so, see your doctor. The National Cancer Institute has just updated the list of infectious agents known to cause cancer, and it's growing. Some can be treated. Some infections can be ‘silent’, meaning you don’t know you are infected. In this case, think of your risk factors, travel, or possible contact with others who are infected. Some of these infections are contagious, even by simply sharing food. The risk factors for ‘catching’ these germs are evolving. Even living a careful life is not insurance enough. Only one of these connections between infectious agents and cancer was known when I was in medical school in the 1980s: Epstein Bar Virus and Burkett’s Lymphoma in African children. That was enough to give me an intuitive hunch the list would grow. I was especially concerned there was a probable connection between viral infections and lymphoma + leukemia cancers.

Random Targets

In my internal medicine residency, I rotated on the oncology service twice. It was an emotionally difficult service for me. I saw so many lovely people, including children, with terrible cancers including lymphoma and leukemia. They lived in the hospital at the time to have aggressive chemo. I would often fight back tears as I did the many tasks that doctors do for their patients. There had to be an explanation to why this horrible disease seemed to randomly target people. I suspected viruses would become an important part of this story as cancer research progressed. As a resident, I was the oddball resident who obsessively rubbed alcohol wipes on everything that touched a patient, including my stethoscope. To put this in perspective, AIDS and HIV was just being identified.

No Gloves!

We knew very little of how the role of viruses in disease was going to explode. If you can believe it, we did not even have gloves to draw blood in medical school! I often had other people’s blood stuck in the creases of my fingernails during my work day. I trained in a poor hospital system in New Orleans. In the early 1980s, Charity Hospital cared for the sick and poor of all of Southern Louisiana. It was a very busy place: 10 patients to a ward, 4 wards on a wing if I remember correctly. Med students did most blood drawing and ran most errands for patients. No gloves! We did not know we stood on the edge of the convergence of infectious disease with immunology, oncology, and more! I also reflect on other risks we underestimated in medicine. Things I’ve done for years like inhaling cautery plume many times a day. Cautery plum is the smoke created from cauterizing human flesh. I've worn viral filter masks at work for 25 years, because of this ‘hunch’, but these masks are not perfect.

Immune Health is Key

It is a brave new world to live amongst the emerging science. My solace is that if we keep our health and vitality strong, then our immune system will most likely keep these infections contained if we pick one up. Because we live in a world among germs, I believe getting one of these infections are inevitable to some extent. Read through the new National Cancer Institute list and be blown away! It is a marvel to see how our understanding is growing between the connection of cancer and infectious agents like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Also:
  • Eat well
  • Rest
  • Let stress run off your psyche like ‘water off a duck’s back’
  • Exercise daily
  • Hug your loved ones and pets
This is all good for your immune system, which is busy keeping you healthy. Take vitamin D as well (talk to your doctor about this). It's just another one of my intuitive hunches. I think it’s important for this infection/cancer topic.