What if I told you that scientists had figured out a way to predict the development of cancer more than a decade before the disease actually starts to wreak havoc on the body? Would you want to know — even if you could not actually prevent the inevitable from happening?

Researchers from Harvard and Northwestern universities have discovered small but significant changes that occur in the body that signal the development of cancer. But these changes occur as far out as 13 years before any signs of cancer emerge. 

It all has to do with the wear and tear of our telomeres — the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes that prevent DNA damage (shown in pink in the photo above). Each time the cells within our body divide, our telomeres get just a little shorter. The older we get, the more times our cells will have divided, and the shorter our telomeres will be. They are like the wick of a candle, indicating that time is slowly running out. But for people who may develop cancer, those telomeres are much shorter than they should be, indicating more wear and tear than would have been predicated according to their age.

For the study, researchers took multiple measurements of the telomeres for 792 participants over a 13-year period. Seventeen percent of those studied were eventually diagnosed with different types of cancer, including prostate, skin, lung and leukemia. Researchers found that in 100 percent of cases, the participants who would later develop cancer had telomeres that were significantly shorter than they should be. Those telomeres continued to shrink over time until about four yeas before the cancer developed, when they suddenly stopped shrinking.

"Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer," said Dr. Lifang Hou, the lead study author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

But before you rush out to your nearest telomere testing center, there are a few things to consider. This study indicates that telomere length may predict the development of cancer, but knowing that cancer might be in your future doesn't mean that you will be able to prevent it. Telomere length can't even predict the type of cancer that might strike, so you could be doing everything in your power to stall the development of prostate cancer when it's really skin cancer that is lurking.

Some experts even worry that having a test like this may harm your chances of getting affordable health insurance over time. After all, cancer is pretty expensive and if telomere tests indicate that you will develop it, your insurance premium could skyrocket to compensate.

Still, knowledge is power, and understanding the link between telomere length and the development of cancer gives researchers some lead time in to understanding how this insidious disease develops. Over time, they may even learn how to pinpoint what type of cancer will develop or even how to reverse the wear and tear on telomeres and somehow halt the progression of the disease.

If a blood test to predict cancer were available, would you try it? Think about it, because it may soon be coming to a doctor's office near you.

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