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Cancer: Wounds That Never Heal?

As long ago as 1863, German pathologist Rudolf Virchow suggested that cancer might spring from sites that are chronically inflamed, but the notion was ignored until recently. Now, studies support the idea that some tumors are essentially wounds that have failed to heal.

One of the strongest examples is colon cancer. People with a history of inflammatory bowel diseases have up to a 60% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than people who haven’t had bowel problems. And, rheumatoid arthritis patients who regularly take NSAIDs (which fight inflammation) almost never get colon cancer, says Dr. Dawn Willis, scientific adviser to the American Cancer Society.

Bacterial or viral infections may also be implicated. According to one estimate, infections cause some 15% of cancers worldwide. Helicobacter pylori, the bug that causes stomach ulcers, is linked with gastric cancer; genital warts, caused by the human papillomavirus, are a primary cause of cervical cancer; and both hepatitis B and C raise the risk of liver cancer. As Dr. Willis puts it, “chronic inflammation sets up an environment that’s very conductive to cancer.”

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