World Cancer Day 2019: Cancer is a war that can be won if you know what to look for

Cricketer Yuvraj Singh was diagnosed with it, former Bollywood heartthrob Manisha Koirala moved to New York to get treated for it, the beautiful Afreen girl Lisa Ray fought her way through it and legendary actress Mumtaz kept her fighting spirit alive despite it for 11 long years.

These Indian celebs from different walks of life struggled, fought their way through one disease that took different forms. It hasn’t spared Hollywood, Indian or international sports personalities and the millions of others around the world that are fighting their battle away from the spotlight. The disease is cancer.

From lung, breast and ovarian to blood, skin and bone, this malady appears in many ways and can strike anyone at any time. To save the lives by raising awareness, educating people and taking timely action to prevent and treat the disease, World Cancer Day is celebrated each year on the 4 February.

 World Cancer Day 2019: Cancer is a war that can be won if you know what to look for

One of GLOBOCAN's many World Cancer Day campaign posters. Image courtesy: GLOBOCAN 2019

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a condition in which some cells in the body grow uncontrollably, and in some case, spread and invade organs in other parts of the body — a process called metastasis. This abnormal growth is harmful because it doesn't just replace healthy cells in organs, but also causes changes in our body's biochemistry that can lead to weight loss and a compromised immune system. thereby, leading to death.

There are over 200 different types of cancers, some of which are far more common worldwide that others are lung and breast cancer (12.3 percent of total cases each), colorectal i.e. the large intestine cancer (10.6 percent), followed by prostate cancer (7.5 percent) and stomach cancer (6.1 percent), according to the World Cancer Research Fund International statistics.

The most common types of cancers in Indian men and women. Image courtesy: Onco.com

The most common types of cancers in Indian men and women. Image courtesy: Onco.com

In India, the top 5 cancers by incidence are cancers of breast, oral cavity and lips, uterine-cervical, stomach and lungs, according to GLOBOCAN 2018.

Is it spreading fast?

India has around 2.25 million cases with over 1 lakh new cases being registered every year, according to Cancerindia.org. In 2018, the disease led to nearly 7 lakh deaths. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR estimates that the country is likely to register over 17 lakh new cases and report over 8 lakh deaths by 2020.

What are the risk factors?

It is not possible in most cases to pinpoint or guarantee a direct relationship between risk factors and cancer. Hence, we witness many cases of people who, despite living a very healthy lifestyle, still get cancer. However, there are risk factors that can increase one’s chances of getting cancer during their lifetime. These are lifestyle-related health risks and family history or risks related to hereditary cancers.

Cancer as a lifestyle disease

  • Among the top 5 cancers in India, for instance, cancers of lungs, oral cavity, uterine cervix and large intestine have strong lifestyle risks. People who use tobacco products, smoke cigarettes, pipe, hookah or chew gutka, snuff etc. have much higher chances of getting lung or oral cavity cancers. Consuming alcohol alongside tobacco increases the risk of oral cancers even further.
  • Practising unsafe sex has a strong association with cancer of the uterine cervix.
  • A combination of diet and exercise has emerged as a very strong protective lifestyle factor to reduce the risk of cancer. A diet high in unprocessed cereals, fruits and vegetables and less animal protein has shown reduced rates in many cancers, especially cancer of the large intestine.
  • Similarly, exercising regularly is linked with significantly lower risk (by 12-24 percent) of many cancers, including cancers of large intestine, breast and uterus

Twelve ways to reduce your risk of cancer. Image: Cancer.ie

Cancer as a human genetic disease

People with family history of certain cancers: breast, large intestine, thyroid etc. have higher risk of getting these when compared to normal population. So these people should get assessed for risk of cancer by a genetic counsellor or at least a physician, who can suggest further genetic testing or early screening if needed. 

Survival rates for cancers today

Medical science has made significant inroads in treating cancers over the years, bringing down mortality resulting from cancers in general, most notably in cancers like the prostate, breast and large intestine. The survival rate for cancer has improved remarkably, from 49 percent in 1975-1977 to 67 percent in 2007-2013, as per the National Cancer Institute, USA. In case of prostate cancer, the improvement has been tremendous, from 68 percent in 1975-77, to an incredible >99 percent today. Breast cancer, too, has improved to 91 percent from 75 percent in the same period.

Cancer survival in the UK has doubled in the last 40 years from 24 percent to 50 percent, as per Cancer Research UK. While survival rates vary greatly among cancers, the good news is that 80 percent or more of people diagnosed with cancer types which are easier to diagnose and/or treat survive their cancer for ten years or more.

However, the survival rates in India for even these easily detectable and/or treatable cancers are still lower when compared to those in Europe or North America. A major cause of this is late detection of common cancers, which compromises the treatment success by a great margin. Therefore, screening for these common cancers is one of the biggest success mantras for getting the survival rates higher. In the West, cervical cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer screenings have been very effective in early detection and treatment.

Screening tests/exams for common cancers

After a lot of research and study, some tests have been recommended as standard screening tests for common cancers. Doctors advise that these to be done at regular intervals so that early cancers or precancerous conditions can be recognised and treated. These include:

  • Pap smear for cervical cancer in women
  • Monthly SBE (Self Breast Examination)breast awareness and mammography after age 50 (in most cases)
  • A 6-monthly dentist evaluation and monthly Self Oral Examination for tobacco users
  • Stool test for occult blood after 50 years of age
  • PSA for prostate cancer, for men more than 50 years of age (discuss the pros and cons with your doctor)

Also, stay aware of red flag symptoms to watch for to seek help at the earliest: unexplained weight loss, losing appetite, difficulty swallowing or breathing, a growing skin lesion or more, increasing constipation in elderly, etc.

Preparing for costly cancer treatments

Popular health insurance plans in India, both individual and family floaters, will help you cover hospitalisation expenses. However, critical illness and standalone cancer insurance plans will provide lumpsum amount when diagnosed with this deadly disease.

Way forward

On World Cancer Day, going on year three of the campaign theme ‘I Am and I Will’, it is time to take a pledge to support the ones suffering, and be cautious and safeguarding yourself by getting screened and following a healthy lifestyle.

Cancer can be detected and in many cases even cured so keep the positivity and fighting spirit to win over it intact.

 

The author is a Senior consultant in the medical team at docprime.com

 

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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2019 11:39:01 IST