February 4, 2019

World Cancer Day

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, killing approximately 9.6 million people each year. In view of the immense scale of this disease, World Cancer Day was established as an initiative towards creating awareness and unity in the fight against cancer. World Cancer Day takes place on February 4th each year.

In Malaysia, the most common cancer among males is lung cancer, followed by nasopharyngeal and nose cancers.Breast cancer, on the other hand, is the most common cancer among Malaysian females.In addition, colorectal cancer has also seen a rise in incidence in both Malaysian males and females.

A cancer diagnosis is often devastating for the patient as well as their loved ones. Patients and their loved ones may experience feelings of anger, sadness, fear, feeling out of control or helplessness. Physical side effects of cancer (e.g. fatigue, nausea and pain, among others) may further interfere with the patients’ social relationships and emotional state, leading to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, some patients are more greatly affected by a cancer diagnosis than others. This is especially true for younger patients, female patients, patients with financial constraints, patients with young kids, and patients who live alone.

The diagnosis of cancer also affects the patients’ significant other or close relatives, who may have to shoulder responsibility as caregiver in addition to other household responsibilities. In fact, caregivers’ health condition has been shown to directly correlate with the progress of cancer in the patient.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease in which a group of cells in the body undergoes changes and forms an uncontrolled, abnormal growth (called a ‘tumour’, except in leukaemia). If untreated, cancer cells can destroy the surrounding tissues.

Cancer cells can break off from the main tumour and spread to other parts of the body via the bloodstream and lymphatic systems. These secondary tumours (called ‘metastases’) invade new tissue areas and continue to grow. This condition is known as ‘metastatic cancer’.

Signs and symptoms of cancer

Different types of cancer will have varied symptoms at different locations of the body. Regardless, there are some key signs one can keep a look out for:

  • Unusual lumps / swellings: These are usually painless and may grow in size over time.
  • Coughing / chest pain / breathlessness / difficulty swallowing: Watch out for these symptoms if they persist for longer than 3 weeks.
  • Unexplained weight loss: A sudden and significant weight loss within a short period of time (about 2 months) warrants a medical check-up.
  • Change in bowel habit: Look out for pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, and/or blood in stool.
  • Problems in urinating: Includes frequent urination, being unable to urinate, and pain while urinating.
  • New mole or changes in mole: Watch for changes in size, shape or colour, and if it becomes itchy, crusty, bleeds or oozes.
  • Unusual breast changes: Look for changes in size, shape, feel, and presence of pain.
  • Appetite loss: Losing appetite for food for a prolonged period of time.
  • Fatigue: Experiencing extreme tiredness.
  • Ulcers that do not heal: This includes sore wounds or mouth ulcers, which do not heal.
  • Unexplained bleeding: Includes bleeding between periods, blood in urine/stool/vomit, or coughing blood.
Performing regular breast self-examination (BSE) helps in early identification of breast cancer.

Steps to reduce risk of cancer 

Cancer can be caused by a number of factors. While some of these factors are non-modifiable (e.g. older age, genetic predisposition and weakened immune system), at least one-third of common cancers are preventable by a change in lifestyle and diet. 

Below are a few steps one can take to reduce risk of developing cancer:

  1. Quit tobacco use

Tobacco contains many carcinogenic chemicals. The habit of smoking and chewing tobacco is attributed to 22% of cancer deaths.

  1. Reduce intake of alcohol

Increased alcohol consumption raises the risk of bowel, breast, mouth, larynx & pharynx, oesophageal, liver and stomach cancers.

  1. Drop a few kilos

Excess weight has been linked to an increased risk of developing 12 different cancers.Keeping a healthy weight and staying active can help reduce the risks associated with excess weight.

  1. Reduce intake of processed meats

Diets high in processed meats have an impact on cancer risks, particularly bowel, nasopharynx and stomach cancers.Consider adopting the “Mediterranean diet”, which consists of plenty of vegetables and healthy fats, as well as moderate protein consumption.

  1. Keep up with vaccinations

Some viruses can induce cells to become cancerous. Around 70% of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). In addition, liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma may be caused by hepatitis B and C viruses.Getting the relevant vaccinations may reduce the risk of developing these cancers.

  1. Stay sun smart

It’s easy to overlook the amount of sun exposure received every day. Stay sun smart by wearing protective clothing, hats and sunglasses. Apply sunscreen and avoid spending time outdoors between 10 am to 4 pm.

Dietary factors account for 30% of cancers. A diet focusing on plant-based foods and low in red meats reduces risk of cancer.

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  8. World Cancer Research Fund International. Alcoholic drinks and the risk of cancer. Available at https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/exposures/alcoholic-drinks. Accessed on 8 February 2019.