Until now, the risk assessment for solid tumor development was solely based on the evaluation of clinical and family history. By adding a new level of investigation, the HELIXAFE program allows an objective risk assessment based on the DNA sequence of each individual (personalized approach).


Advanced age is the most important risk factor for cancer development. The average age of cancer diagnosis is 66, but the disease can occur at any age.



Tobacco use is a leading cause of cancer and cancer-related death. Active and passive smoking increase cancer risk by promoting DNA damage and facilitating the occurrence of cancer-related genomic mutations. Tobacco use causes many types of cancer, including cancer of the lung, larynx (voice box), mouth, esophagus, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon and rectum, cervix, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.


Alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx (voice box), liver, and breast. Alcohol consumption in combination with tobacco use further increases the risk of developing cancer. Phyisicians advise people who drink to do so in moderate amounts. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans established by the Federal government define moderate alcohol drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

Cancer-Causing Substances in the Environment

Cancer is caused by changes to certain genes that alter the way our cells function. Some of these genetic changes occur naturally when DNA is replicated during the process of cell division, but others are the result of environmental exposure to DNA damaging agents. These agents include substances, such as those produced by tobacco smoke, and radiation, such as ultraviolet sun rays.

Exposure to certain DNA damaging agents, such as tobacco smoke and direct sunlight, can be avoided However, exposure to DNA damaging agents that are present in the air, in drinking water, in food or in the work environment is harder to avoid. Multiple ongoing scientific studies aim to define cancer-causing or cancer-promoting agents. These studies will provide guidelines to greatly reduce or even avoid exposure to DNA damaging agents.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation refers to a long-term persistent inflammatory state that does not resolve over time. Chronic inflammation may be caused by persistent infections, autoimmune responses, or metabolic disease conditions, such as obesity. Chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer onset. For example, people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, have an increased risk of developing colon cancer.


Radon is a radioactive gas produced by the decay of radium, which is found in rocks and soil. Radium is, in turn, a decay product of uranium and thorium. People who are exposed to high levels of radon have an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

X-Rays and Other Sources of Radiation

High-energy radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays, alpha particles, beta particles, and neutrons, can damage DNA and cause cancer. These forms of radiation can be released during accidents at nuclear power plants and when atomic weapons are made, tested, or used. Certain medical procedures, such as chest x-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, and radiation therapy can also cause cell damage that leads to cancer. However, in these cases, the benefits related to the diagnostic power of such procedures greatly overweights the possible risks associated with them.

Sequencing the genome of cancer patients has allowed revealing mutations in genes that drive the onset and growth of many types of cancer. This knowledge has improved our understanding of cancer biology and has led to new methods for diagnosing and treating the disease. For example, the identification of mutations specific to certain cancer types and even to subsets of patients affected by the same cancer has enabled the development of therapies that target these mutations as well as of diagnostic tests that identify patients who may benefit from these therapies. One such targeted drug is vemurafenib (ZELBORAF®), which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2011 for the treatment of a subset of melanoma patients bearing a specific mutation in the BRAF gene.