To help understand genes, imagine this: you have a recipe, and it’s your job to make copies of it, by hand, for 1 million people. Over time, you’ll make a few simple mistakes, such as missing a letter. Someone can still use a recipe that has 1 misspelled word without a problem. But imagine one time, you smear an important part of the recipe, such as the key ingredient. The person who gets that copy of the recipe will have problems making it.

Your genes are similar to recipes used by cells in your body. Genes guide your cells to make the parts of your body and control what happens within it. Genes also guide your cells on how often they should make copies of themselves.

How are genes related to cancer?

Over time, things will damage or change the genes in a cell. This is called a genetic mutation, and it’s similar to the errors that happen when copying a recipe. Often, these changes aren’t harmful. But sometimes they cause serious problems. If changes happen to genes that alter how often a cell makes copies of itself, the cell may grow out of control. This growth can spread and damage the cells around it, leading to cancer.

Researchers can use cancer genes to find treatments

Every cancer is caused by unique changes to a cell’s genes. By looking at many cancers, researchers can look for patterns in the changes. This allows them to:

  • Make treatments that work on certain types of cancers
  • Know if a cancer is more likely to come back or spread to other parts of the body (metastasize)