NCCN Guidelines for Patients
: Caring for Adolescents and Young Adults
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Part 1: But I’m too young to have cancer!
Mutation: Where it all begins
Cancer gets its start when something goes wrong in the
genetic code—a process called mutation. (Think the
X-Men, minus the cool super powers.) Mutations can be
inherited—passed on from parent to child and present
before you are born—or acquired—caused by later
Inherited mutations are found in all of the body’s cells.
People with inherited genetic mutations have a higher
risk for certain cancers, but that doesn’t mean they will
definitely develop cancer. That’s because it usually
takes more than one mutation to turn a normal cell into
a cancer cell. People with inherited mutations are further
along the road to getting cancer than people without
mutations, but it takes additional damage—acquired
mutations—to get cancer started.
Inherited mutations are quite rare, and are involved in
only a few types of cancer. Acquired mutations, on the
other hand, are found in every person with cancer. Unlike
inherited mutations, which affect every cell in the body,
acquired mutations happen in specific cells or types of
cells. Acquired mutations can happen because of:
Exposure to carcinogens
damage DNA and cause cancer) – Common
carcinogens include ultraviolet rays from the sun,
various chemicals (including chemicals found in
tobacco and alcohol), and radiation.
Some viruses damage the genetic code
in a way that makes infected cells more likely to
become cancerous. HPV (
for example, is a sexually transmitted virus that is
the leading cause of cervical cancer. It has also
been linked to head and neck cancers in young
adults. And some forms of hepatitis virus have been
linked to liver cancer.
Every time a cell divides, it has to make
a copy of its original DNA. Sometimes the copies
aren’t perfect, and contain genetic mutations.
Usually, other genes repair the damage or the
immune system gets rid of the abnormal cell before
it can divide again. But sometimes abnormal
cells survive and the damaged DNA is passed
along every time the cells divide. Over time, the
accumulated mutations may lead to cancer.