Cancer remains a public health issue as it is a major cause of illness and death among people. Globally, reports show increase in the number of people affected by cancer and one may view its burden in terms of that felt directly by the individual with the disease or the burden on the families or communities of people with cancer, which in either case is a lot. Cancer is a disease that occurs when there is uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells and could affect anyone, female or male, young or old, educated or uneducated. There are many different types of cancer, usually named according to the part of the body they originate from. For instance, breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, cervical cancer, blood cancer, bone cancer, skin cancer to mention a few, cancer can actually originate from any part of the body.
Cells in the body are constantly dividing and replicating themselves throughout life to replace worn out or dead cells and this takes place in a regulated way. However, when the multiplication of cells begin to occur persistently in an uncontrolled manner, leading to formation of abnormal cells which cannot perform same function as the normal cells because they have not formed properly, cancer results. Cancer can affect individuals of all ages, young and advanced in age, it also cuts across sexes, ethnic or religious backgrounds, educational or social status. There have been many misconceptions about cancer however with increased cancer awareness more people are getting well informed about the condition. In some parts of Nigeria, cancer is believed to be ‘a spiritual problem whose solution can only be obtained spiritually’. It is also thought to ‘affect only the elderly and those living in developed countries’. However, evidence show cases of cancer globally affecting high, middle or low income countries.
It is interesting to know that many cancers can be prevented because as in many cases unhealthy lifestyle may be the underlying factor. Also, low health literacy on how to lead healthier lives and prevent diseases has contributed to the increasing rate. Poor health seeking behaviour amongst many to screen or complain about symptoms experienced lead to late presentation in health facilities which often lead to poorer outcomes. Many who develop symptoms will seek other sources of perceived intervention before finally going to the hospital and when they eventually do, the disease would have progressed onto a more severe stage with worse prognosis.
Some cancers run in families and are considered to be hereditary while some develop spontaneously and are referred to as sporadic. Researches continue to investigate exactly how cancer occurs as in a lot of cases the cause of cancers is unknown. However, many risk factors have been associated to cancer, some of which could be inherited risk factors, for example, genetic mutations that occur in breast cancer, colon cancer and others or non-inherited risk factors/ acquired factors, for example, infections(for example, Human Papilloma Virus, Human Immunodeficiency Virus, helicobacter pylori), tobacco consumption, sedentary lifestyle( lack of physical activity), overweight or obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, exposure to radioactive substances, air pollution, poor diet amongst many others. The symptoms of cancer vary according to the organ or tissue affected, the stage of the cancer among other factors and some symptoms of cancer but not exclusive to cancers include fatigue, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, back pain, headache, dizziness, lump, abnormal skin change, abdominal swelling, body swelling, yellowish discolouration of the eyes, persistent cough, difficulty in breathing, irregular or abnormal menstrual bleeding, to mention a few. The diagnosis of cancer is done by a medical practitioner following thorough medical history taking and clinical examination, relevant laboratory investigations to establish, support, confirm diagnosis and assist treatment. Modalities of investigation vary depending on the tissue or organ affected and stage of disease.
There are various modalities for treating cancers depending on the part of the body, stage of disease and other factors considered important. Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy, Surgery, Palliation are among some treatment modalities. Specialists and individuals involved determine the most appropriate modality that will deliver the most possible effective outcomes.
Breast Cancer awareness month is marked in October across the world annually and supports activities that increase people’s knowledge of breast cancer and required lifestyle modifications including regular screening for early detection and prompt treatment. According to World Health Organisation reports there’s been over one million new cases and a little under half a million deaths from breast cancer. This increase in numbers can be attributed to several factors such as rising urbanization and adoption of western lifestyle among others. Early detection stands as the main stay of breast cancer control as it determines outcomes in many cases. Self-breast examination, discussing any abnormality noticed with your primary physician is beneficial. Although breast cancer is commonest among women, a little percentage of men can develop the disease (rare). In the early stages breast cancer may be asymptomatic. Some symptoms of breast cancer include breast pain, new lump in the breast/armpit, abnormal change in shape or size of the breast, changes on the skin of the breast (dimpling or reddish coloration), nipple discharge other than breast milk (which may be bloody). There are other conditions that can produce symptoms similar to those of breast cancer, thus it is important to visit your primary healthcare provider for thorough evaluation and further assessment. Mammogram is recommended for women above 40years and should be done as advised by your primary care provider. As a result of the fact that breast cancer can run in families, certain genetic testing may also identify presence of abnormal genes in people at risk with such strong positive family history of breast cancer.
‘Prevention is better than cure’, it is beneficial to everyone that cancers are prevented to reduce the burden of the disease on the individual, family, community and country at large, as well as lower health care costs and other negative effects of cancer on the society as a whole. Prevention can be targeted at several stages of a person’s life, for instance, adequate vaccination will offer protection to the individual where available, regular health screening as recommended which can detect the disease at its early stages and lead to better treatment outcomes. Lifestyle modifications like avoiding tobacco smoking, moderate consumption of alcohol, limiting exposure to radioactive substances, radiation, eating healthy, regular exercise, treating infections promptly. Early presentation to the health facilities will lead to early diagnosis which will prevent untoward complications and prolong life. Joining support groups also help prevent psychological effects of cancer on an individual.
Cancer was formerly regarded as a death sentence by many however a lot of affected individuals are living longer, happier lives with improved intervention, family and community support.
Health quote of the week: “Early detection saves lives”– Dennis Prager.