CANCER is one of the leading causes of death, not only on a global scale, but in South Africa too.
World Cancer Day this week, focuses on dispelling the misconceptions surrounding this disease. The four main myths being tackled are that 1) cancer is my fate, 2) cancer is just a health issue, 3) cancer is a death sentence, and 4) cancer is a disease of the wealthy or elderly, confined to developed countries.
With a realistic understanding of this disease and its preventative measures, cancer can be tackled. In fact, more than 30% of cancer deaths could be prevented if the patient was diagnosed earlier and received the correct treatment, according to Danaei et al (2005).
What is cancer?
Doctors Dupper and Malan, both clinical oncologists at GVI Oncology’s Langenhoven Drive oncology centre, define cancer as a cell mutation that usually multiplies faster than the normal cells of the body. The cancer cells begin to invade the tissues and organs of the body, forming tumours.
These cells can spread through the body via the blood and lymph systems.
Common cancers in South Africa
The most common types of cancer in this country occur in the lung, breast, prostate, cervix and colon. Because South Africa is a country of great diversity, the types of cancer that are found here are equally varied.
The following factors may increase one’s risk of developing cancer, but are not the only conditions under which one may become ill with this disease:
l Carcinogens (substances that could stimulate the formation of a cancer such as tobacco, asbestos, and charred food);
l Advanced age;
l A family history of cancer;
l Being overweight;
l A diet with high fat and low folate content;
l A history of exposure to the sun; and
l Viral and bacterial infections.
Smoking remains the leading cause of cancer; not only in the lungs, but also in the mouth, throat, oesophagus, prostate, cervix and colon. Dupper says: "The risk of developing smoking-related cancer only decreases 20 years after quitting the habit. Secondary smokers are four times as likely to contract cancer as their smoking counterparts. Children born to smokers are exposed to these toxic fumes from birth.”
Decreasing one’s risk
While there are no fool-proof preventative measures against developing cancer, there certainly are ways in which to decrease one’s risk. Stopping smoking is, without question, the most important measure one can take.
In terms of diet, it is all about moderation. The antioxidants in fresh fruits and vegetables are essential to building up the immune system, as is limiting the amount of alcohol one takes in. Preservatives, colourants, and flavourants can compromise the immune system’s effectiveness.
Avoiding exposure to the harmful rays of the sun is another integral part of decreasing one’s chances of developing cancer. "Prevention starts from birth,” says Dupper. "You can only decrease your risk by maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle that includes fruit and vegetables, exercise and a diet that contains folate.”
For this reason, it is essential to begin an educational campaign that helps families to understand healthy nutrition and how to implement it in their lives.
Screening is essential in the diagnosis and early treatment of cancer.
Annual breast exams, prostate checks (comprising a blood test and a rectal examination for full effectiveness) and pap smears are recommended, especially if there is a family history of cancer..
Types of treatment available
Port Elizabeth has a world-class facility that offers all of the main types of cancer treatment that are internationally recognised, GVI Oncology’s Langenhoven Drive Oncology Centre, fondly know as LDOC. These methods include:
l Chemotherapy – a chemical treatment that kills the cancerous cells;
l Radiation – high-energy waves are used to damage or destroy cancer;
l Targeted therapy – drugs are used to identify and attack the cancer cells; and
l Immunotherapy – the immune system is boosted to assist the body to fight the cancer itself.
Surgery (physically removing the tumour or organ) is another option available to some, depending on their specific type of cancer.
Dupper and Malan warned that any symptoms that persist for longer than four weeks need to be investigated.
These symptoms can range from a croaky throat, external sore on the skin and sore stomach to headaches, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, and so on.