According to the latest projections of the WHO, one in 10 Indians will develop cancer during their lifetime and one in 15 will lose their lives to it. This WHO report also reveals quite a few alarming cancer statistics about India:
- 16 million new cases of cancer registered every year
- 7,84,800 lose their lives to this condition
- Six major types of cancer recorded in India are breast cancer, oral cancer, cervical cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, and colorectal cancer.
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a fatal condition characterised by abnormal cell division. Our body is constituted of trillions of cells. Healthy cells grow and divide according to the necessity of the body. As they age or are damaged, these cells die, and new ones replace them. When one develops cancer, cells stop functioning like this. Old and damaged cells survive instead of dying and new cells start forming even when they are not necessary. These extra cells divide uncontrollably resulting in tumours. While many forms of cancer are characterised by solid tumours or tissue masses, blood cancers do not result in tumours. Cancer, which can develop in any part of the body, generally spreads to the nearby tissues. The abnormal, damaged cancer cells march to distant locations of the body too though the bloodstream and form new malignant tumours.
Cancer is an umbrella term for a host of related diseases. The most common forms of this condition are breast cancer, ovarian cancer, skin cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and lymphoma. The manifestations vary depending on the type of cancer and the standard line of treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery.
As already mentioned, the symptoms differ on the basis of the type of cancer one has. However, there are some generic manifestations that are common to most cancers. Here are some of the prominent symptoms of cancer.
Unexplained weight loss: Shedding kilos without any visible reason may be one of the first indications of cancer. People with cancer in the pancreas, stomach or lungs have been commonly found to lose weight. However, people with other types of cancer can also experience weight loss.
Extreme fatigue: Feeling drained out throughout the day can be a sign of cancer.
Lump: Cancer in the breast, lymph nodes, soft tissues, and testicles typically manifest through lumps of thickening of the skin.
Changes in the skin: If your skin changes colour and becomes yellow, dark, or red, it could signal cancer. Another indication of cancer could be the changing colour, shape and size of moles, freckles or warts. Watch out if your sores take unusually long time to heal.
Acute pain: This could be a warning signal for bone or testicular cancer. While back pain can be the manifestation of colorectal, pancreatic, or ovarian cancer, people with malignant brain tumours experience stubborn headache that doesn’t go away.
Change in bowel movement and bladder function: Severe constipation, diarrhoea, blood in the stool, can be the sign of colorectal cancer. Painful urination and blood in the pee could be an alarm bell for bladder and prostate cancer.
Swelling in lymph nodes: Watch out for swollen glands that persist for three to four weeks. An increase in the size of lymph nodes can also signal cancer.
Anaemia: A dip in red blood cell count, the main feature of anaemia, can be the sign of haematological cancers.
Some of the other symptoms of cancer could be unusual bleeding (in the vagina or while coughing) hoarseness of voice, and extreme difficulty in breathing.
What Causes Cancer?
There is no known cause behind cancer. However, certain factors can increase your chance of getting cancer. We need to prevent our exposure to potentially carcinogenic factors to safeguard ourselves from this fatal condition. Though we can’t do much about genetic predisposition, a major risk factor behind cancer, we need to be extra cautious and make conscious efforts to go for screenings if we have a family history of the condition. This will ensure early detection and treatment too. Here are the most prominent factors that can increase our chance of getting cancer:
Chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes: Nicotine in these products can make you vulnerable to any type of cancer. However, it increases your risk of lung cancer, and cancers of the alimentary tract, pancreas, etc.
Genes: Some cancers run in the family. There is inheritance of a faulty gene, which initiates cancer. For example, breast cancer can be hereditary.
Carcinogens in the environment: Environmental toxins that we are exposed to, in our daily lives can also be responsible for increasing our risk of cancer. Substances like asbestos, benzene, arsenic, nickel compounds and indoor emissions from household combustion of coal can be potentially harmful.
Foods: Additives in preservatives and pesticides in our foods have the potential to up our risk of cancer. Moreover, re-heated foods, overcooked ones, those cooked in over-heated or re-heated oils can also turn carcinogenic. Water contaminated with heavy minerals due to industrial effluents are also harmful.
Viruses: Hepatitis B and C viruses are responsible for 50% of liver cancers. Human Papilloma virus is responsible for 99.9% cases of cervical cancer.
Also, over exposure to sun and radiation can make us more vulnerable to cancer.
Most cancers are characterised by tumours and can be divided in five stages. Expressed in Roman numerals, these stages tell you how advanced the cancer is.
Stage 0: It indicates that there’s no cancer. However, there are abnormal cells that may develop into cancer.
Stage I: At this stage, the tumour is small and cancer cells spread only in one area.
Stage II and III: At these stages, the tumour gets larger and the cancer cells spread to nearby body organs lymph nodes.
Stage IV: This is the last stage of cancer, also known as metastatic cancer. At this stage, the cancer spreads to different parts of the body.
Your doctor may also consider another system to figure out the stage of cancer. It is known as TNM (tumour, node, and metastasis) system.
Diagnosis of Cancer
For the detection of cancer, your doctor may start with a physical exam after going through your medical history. He may suggest urine, blood or stool tests to diagnose the condition. If he suspects cancer, you may need to undergo imaging tests like X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, and fibre-optic endoscopy examinations. These diagnostic tools will tell your doctor about the location and size of the tumour. Biopsy is the confirmatory test for cancer. This method involves removal of tissue sample for diagnosis. If biopsy results are positive, then further tests will be suggested to find out the spread of cancer.
Treatment of Cancer
Your doctor will decide your treatment options depending on the type, location or stage of the cancer. Typically, the standard line of treatment for cancer includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy, Immunotherapy and stem cell transplants among others.
Surgical intervention is needed to remove tumours, tissues, lymph nodes or any other cancer-affected area. Sometimes doctors carry on this process to find out the severity of the disease. Surgery is by far the best treatment option for cancer if it hasn’t spread to many organs of the body.
This treatment modality aims to kill cancer cells with drugs. The drugs can be taken orally or through injection into a vein.
In this procedure, cancer cells are damaged by using high-energy particles or waves. You may need radiation therapy alone or this can be part of your treatment alongside surgery and chemotherapy.
It enables your immune system to fight against cancer cells.
It is used to treat cancers that are influenced by hormones. Breast and prostrate cancers improve with hormone therapy.
Nutrients keep your body and immune system strong. You need them all the more when fighting a condition like cancer. So, what you eat is very crucial if you are living with it. The right foods will help you not only battle the disease but also withstand the side effects of the treatments. A balanced diet with the right amount of carbohydrates, lean protein and low-fat items are ideal. Also, include a lot of vitamin C-rich fruits and veggies in your diet to boost you immunity as cancer destroys your body’s defence mechanism. Adding a lot of omega 3 fatty acids (nuts) and probiotic-rich food (yogurt) will also help.
Reduce your Cancer Risk
Cancer isn’t a condition that can be prevented. However, certain lifestyle measures can reduce your risk of the condition for sure. Here, we guide you on them.
Say no to tobacco: This is an important step towards cancer risk reduction. Join a smoking cessation programme if need be.
Avoid certain foods: Sugar and refined carbs, processed foods, overcooked and reheated foods increase your risk of cancer. Be cautious while having them.
Practise moderation while it comes to alcohol: It increases your risk of cancer of the breast, colon, lung, kidney and liver. So, make sure you don’t go overboard on alcohol.
Maintain a healthy body weight: Obesity is though to be a major contributing factor behind cancers of the breast, colon, lung and prostrate. So maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial. Apart from following a healthy dietary regimen, you should also work out regularly and stay active through the day to keep obesity at bay.
Immunize yourself against certain infections: Viral infections caused by hepatitis B and HPV increase your chances of certain cancers. Get yourself vaccinated against these viruses.
Other effective measures include reducing your exposure to environmental toxins, harsh rays of the sun and radiation.