Can the use of drugs to improve athletic performance be related to cancer?

There is no doubt that the so-called doping substances used to improve sports performance by athletes are harmful to the body: since the 1970s, the medical literature has provided scientific evidence of such damage, which manifests itself in the short and long term. Is it possible that, in addition to this, doping promotes the onset of certain cancers? We talked about this topic with Dr. Michele Lagioia, amateur cyclist, hygienist and medical director of Humanitas.


Dr. Lagioia, is there scientific evidence of the link between doping and cancer?

Certainly some of the substances that were used in the past, even recently, may increase the risk of developing a tumor. From an epidemiological point of view, the intake of testosterone, growth hormone (GH) and similar substances such as anabolic, which affects disciplines where physical strength is required, has a strong correlation with prostate cancer and testicular cancer. However, there is a weaker association with the primitive tumor of the liver. However, it is obvious that these data refer to what happened years ago, as this type of side effect occurs after long periods of time (sometimes decades). Fortunately, the spread of these substances is now much lower.


So do you think that things are different at the moment?

The drugs used and the methods of doping are constantly changing, in order to deceive the controls and to offer more substantial benefits to athletes. This makes their intake even more dangerous, as there is no time to study their consequences for the body, either in the short or in the long term. I do not think that things have changed for the better, because the feeling is that the use of doping substances unfortunately tends to begin earlier in people’s athletic careers, even from adolescence. This would further amplify the damage: while the body is still growing it is certainly more vulnerable compared to adults.


What about the so-called “genetic” doping?

Among the new molecules that are born every day, even among those studied for therapeutic purposes, there are many that could increase sports performance and that are often used without knowing the effects. For example, although so-called “genetic” doping does not officially exist, drugs regulating myocyte hypergrowth (muscle “fibers”) are already being tested. These substances, designed for the treatment of pathologies that cause degeneration of muscles, administered to an athlete would allow results otherwise unthinkable, but the consequences of non-clinical use, could be devastating.