Is Cancer Really a Genetic Disease?


With the launch of the Human Genome Project over 25 years ago, a great deal of excitement was generated over science’s potential ability to identify specific genetic causes of disease. This was especially true for cancer. Promises of innovative diagnostic tests to identify genetic mutations, coupled with medications to target this abnormal DNA, meant that cancer treatment would be forever changed – with a cure possibly on the horizon.

Cancer Cells vs Normal Cells

When we examine a cancer cell, it has several key features which distinguish it from a normal, healthy cell. Several unique abilities of cancer cells include:

  • Evading the immune system
  • Obtaining their own blood supply for nourishment
  • Invading nearby structures
  • Resisting cell death

The question, then, is how do cells obtain these superpowers in order to become immortal and wreak havoc on the body?

How Do Cancer Cells Form?

The prevailing theory regarding the development of cancer states that random changes to genes, known as mutations, transform healthy cells into cancerous cells. As these cancer cells multiply, a tumor forms. This is known as the somatic mutation theory, and it has dominated cancer research for many decades.

In 2006, the Cancer Genome Atlas project was started to build upon the genetic sequencing performed by the Human Genome Project, this time with a focus on cancer cells. While this has provided some interesting discoveries, it has largely been a disappointing endeavor since there is little consistency in the DNA of given cancers – even among cancer cells from the same patient! The genetic changes were far more random than researchers initially expected.

The Metabolic Theory of Cancer

Dr. Otto Warburg, a German biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1931, discovered that cancer cells have a distinctly different way of producing energy when compared to normal cells. Although both normal cells and cancer cells produce their energy in a portion of the cell known as the mitochondria, Warburg noted that cancer cells – regardless of the type of cancer – produce energy in a far less efficient manner than do normal, healthy cells. He theorized that something must cause these cells to alter their energy production in such a dramatic fashion.

Thomas Seyfried, a leading researcher at Boston College, agrees with Dr. Warburg and feels that we are largely losing the war on cancer due to fighting the wrong enemy. In his book, “Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: On the Origin, Management, and Prevention of Cancer,” he argues that defective genes are not the cause of cancer, but rather the result of it. His research suggests that the damaged mitochondria of cancer cells are driving the random and chaotic DNA changes we see in cancer.

I agree with the research of Dr. Warburg and Dr. Seyfried, and feel strongly that we must focus on the health of the mitochondria in both the treatment and prevention of cancer.

You Are in Control – Not Your Genes

Many people fear that they have inherited cancer-causing genes. While we all inherit our share of bad genes, the exciting field of epigenetics has shown us that we have much more control over our genes than previously thought. It turns out that our genes are not written in stone, but are responding continuously to the environment to which they are exposed. In fact, we now know that genes have an on/off switch. Thus, the goal is to turn the good genes “on” and the bad genes “off.” It should come as no surprise that the internal environment in our bodies is the major factor determining the activity of these on/off switches.

As a result of the research of the aforementioned scientists, coupled with our growing knowledge of epigenetics, we should feel empowered in our quest to conquer cancer. I believe that cancer prevention – and treatment – in the 21st century should focus heavily on metabolic and lifestyle factors, such as:

  • Eliminating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from our food
  • Eating as “close to the earth” as possible (i.e., minimally preserved food in as natural a state as possible)
  • Choosing organic meats and vegetables
  • Limiting sugars and grains
  • Drinking clean, purified water
  • Getting adequate exercise
  • Minimizing stress

My Advice for Cancer Treatment

If you or a loved one is battling cancer, or if you simply want to do all that you can to prevent it, I encourage you to do plenty of research on your own. We have more information at our disposal today than at any point in history. Focus on the above lifestyle and nutritional strategies, and find an integrative oncologist who can guide you as to the best treatments available for your particular situation.

Author Byline:
Jonathan Stegall, MD, is a leading integrative cancer treatment expert. He is the founder of The Center for Advanced Medicine, an innovative medical practice located in Atlanta, GA. He treats patients from throughout the United States, combining natural therapies with the best aspects of modern medicine to create personalized cancer treatment protocols for his patients. His website is

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (
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Seyfried, Thomas. “Cancer as a metabolic disease: implications for novel therapeutics.” Carcinogenesis 2014 Mar; 35(3): 515-527.
Townsend Letter: Warburg Revisited: Maverick Cancer Researcher Questions the Origin of Cancer (

Diagnosis: Diet – What Causes Cancer? (

Jonathan Stegall, MD
Dr. Jonathan Stegall practices integrative oncology, combining the best aspects of natural medicine and modern medicine for the purposes of effectively treating cancer. His clinic, The Center for Advanced Medicine, located in Atlanta, GA, attracts patients from throughout the United States who seek his safe, compassionate, and patient-centered approach. He is a Yale School of Medicine alumnus, with advanced training in integrative oncology. His website is