What is Cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal and uncontrolled division of cells which are able to invade and damage the organ in which they develop and also invade other organs in their vicinity. Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body through blood. Apparently, it is difficult to identify the reasons behind cancer. However, certain risk-factors like smoking, chewing tobacco etc. are known to increase the chances of one getting cancer. The substances, excessive exposure of which can lead to cancer are called carcinogens.

What causes Cancer?

  • If you smoke or chew tobacco, you are more likely to develop cancer of the lung, mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder and pancreas. Smoking is thought to cause about a quarter of all cancers. The heavier you smoke, the greater is the risk. If you stop smoking, your risk goes down considerably
  • Exposure to chemicals like asbestos, benzene, formaldehydene etc increases the risk of developing cancer like urinary bladder cancer, lung cancer and skin cancer. For example, a cancer called mesothelioma is linked to post-exposure to asbestos

A common question often asked is “Doctor I have never taken any alcohol and tobacco in my entire life and I have always lead a healthy lifestyle, still I developed cancer, what did actually happen?” There are certain other risks related to causation of cancer although they are highly variable in different settings:-

  • Age: A good majority of certain cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer are attributable to age. The reason for this lies in the fact that as you become older, there is an unappreciable accumulation of damage to cells in the body over time. Also, the body’s defenses and resistance against abnormal cells may become less as you become older. For example, the immune system which may destroy abnormal cells usually becomes less efficient with age. So, eventually one damaged cell may manage to survive and multiply indefinitely into a cancer. Woman after 40 years of age and men after 50 years of age should undergo regular cancer screening programme to detect them at the earliest stage when they are most curable
  • Lifestyle factors: Diet and other lifestyle factors may increase or decrease the risk of developing cancer. For example: If you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables you have a reduced risk of developing certain cancers like gastro-intestinal cancers. The precise manner in which they protect against cancer is not fully understood. They form the ‘roughage’ which leads to efficient fecal clearance and less exposure of intestines to harmful chemical and by-products in the body, thus preventing cancer formation. These foods are also rich in vitamins and minerals and also contain chemicals called ‘anti-oxidants’ which neutralize these harmful chemicals formed in the body

There are certain dos and don’ts related to your dietary habits:-

  • One should try to have at least some portions of fruit and vegetables per day (Experts recommend as much as possible)
  • Eating too much fatty food possibly increases the risk of developing certain cancers like prostate and endometrial cancers
  • One should try to minimize or avoid junk food
  • The risk of developing certain cancers is increased by: obesity, lack of regular exercise and an excessive intake of alcohol
  • Alcohol: In India, there is an increased chance of developing alcohol related disease and cancers as compared to western population. Alcohol consumption increases the chances of liver and stomach cancers. Also along with smoking it further increases your chances of developing cancers of mouth, throat, food pipe, breathing pipe and stomach
  • Infection: Infections in certain parts of the body (mostly viral) are linked to certain cancers. For example, people with persistent infection with the hepatitis B virus or the hepatitis C virus have an increased risk of developing cancer of the liver. Certain other infections, attributable to poor hygiene, like Human Papilloma Virus (HPV virus) can lead to cervical, penile and anal canal cancer. Most (possibly all) women who develop cervical cancer have been infected with a strain (sub-type) of the HPV virus at some point in their life. As like other viral infections and their associated cancers can be prevented by timely vaccination and can be detected earlier by attending a regular cancer screening programme. An important point here is that although these infections can be transmitted from one person to another, cancer is not a communicable condition i.e. it doesn’t spread from one person to another by touch, living together, eating together working together etc
  • Immune system: People with a poor immune system have an increased chance of developing certain cancers. This is because our body has natural immunity against development and progression of cancers. For example, people with AIDS, or people on immunosuppressive therapy are likely to develop blood cancers, sarcomas and cervical cancers
  • Your genetic make-up: There are more chances of developing cancers when your relatives (blood relations) have history of cancers. This risk increases when the number of relatives suffering with cancer increases. Common examples are cancers of breast and large intestine. We should be aware regarding the risk of development of these cancers and in consultation with a specialist get regular checkups at the defined age and time period

Most cancers are probably due to a combination of factors

Not everybody who comes into contact with carcinogens or has an unhealthy lifestyle will develop cancer. For example, not all smokers develop cancer of the lung. In fact, we are all probably exposed to low doses of carcinogens at most times. The body has certain mechanisms which may protect us from developing cancer. For example, it is thought that many cells which are damaged by carcinogens can repair themselves. Also, the body’s immune system may be able to destroy some types of abnormal cells before they multiply into a cancer. In a number of cases it is likely that a combination of factors such as genetic make-up, exposure to a carcinogen, age, diet, the state of your immune system, etc, play a part to trigger a cell to become abnormal and allow it to multiply ‘out of control’ into cancer.

Early signs of Cancer

  • Change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump in breast or elsewhere
  • Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing
  • Obvious change in wart or mole
  • Nagging cough or Hoarseness

How is cancer treated?

Cancer can be treated by surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or combination of all these in the earliest stage of the disease.

Is cancer curable?

Yes, cancer is curable when detected early. Although it is a very general statement but more than 80% of cancers today are completely curable if treated early. People who have been successfully treated for cancer and if it hasn’t recurred for a period of five years; the chances of it re-appearing are very less. A patient should get himself examined as advised by the treating doctor under all circumstances. They should not ignore minor symptoms or problems since they might be signifying cancer related problems.

For cancer to be curable there are three factors.

  • Type of cancer
  • The stage of cancer
  • How well does the patient finally respond to the kind of treatment that is decided for him/her. A belief that vaccine can cure cancer is a myth. Vaccine can help against a disease caused by a germ and since cancer is not caused by a germ, vaccine is not helpful