The word cancer isn’t a pleasant thing to hear. It stirs a mix of panic, worry and anxiety in all of us. In India alone, the incidence of cancer is around 70-90 per 1,00,000 people. Its prevalence is established to be around 2.5 million with more than 8,00,000 new cases and 5,50,000 deaths occurring each year.
On February 4, as the world observes Cancer Day, to fight against this global epidemic, as an initiative to spread awareness, the medical experts at Narayana Health came together to address the important questions and concerns relating to cancer.
Dr. Sharat Damodar, Senior Consultant Hematologist at NH Health City, Bangalore who runs one of the largest bone marrow center in the country, along with Dr. Santosh Gowda, Medical Oncologist, NH Health City, Bangalore and Dr. Moni Kuriakose, Sr. Consultant and Director of Head and Neck Surgery, NH Health City, Bangalore, joined Dr. Devi Shetty for a discussion. Through an online Webinar session, called NH dialogues, the doctors discussed topics such as the definition of cancer, causes, symptoms, types, stages, prevention, treatment methods, relapse risks, medical advancements, mortality rates as well as lifestyle changes necessary to keep cancer at bay.
The body is made up of cells. Each cell is programmed to function in a certain way. In the case of a cancer cell, this isn’t the case. A cancer cell undergoes changes at the genetic level, i.e. the DNA structure, which forms the blueprint of the cell. The cancer cells are immature and dysfunctional cells that innumerably divide and multiply, thereby, attacking the body’s healthy cells, tissues and organs and finally the immune system, resulting in the death of the person. This is why cancer is termed as a malignant disease; malignant means an evil disease that torments and haunts a patient once hooked on to. However, the good news is that if cancer is detected at an early stage, it can be cured.
How does cancer creep into the system?
There is a high misconception that cancer is a hereditary disease. Dr. Santosh Gowda says that 90% of people, who develop cancers, do not have a family history. This means that there is a mere 10% chance of developing a cancer from a blood relative with the same DNA composition. While the genetic factor plays a minor role in one’s lives, the other elements that increase the risk of developing cancer are: the excess use of tobacco, alcohol, cigarettes, unhealthy diets, intake of processed foods, practice of unsafe and unprotected sex as well as the exposure to excess ultraviolet radiation.
What are the types of cancer?
Cancer can affect literally every part of the body. So the types of cancer have become uncountable. Surprisingly, in India, 30-40% of the patients come under the face and neck cancer issues when compared to 2-3% in the US and Europe. This is attributed to the large number of tobacco and betel leaf chewers. Smoking is also a contributing factor but not so much as tobacco. The reason being the presence of areca nut, a toxic ingredient that is present in most pan masala packets. However, the saddening fact is that people are ignorant of its harmful side effects, making it the number one reason for mouth cancers.
The other frightening type is the blood cancer, otherwise known as leukemia. The doctors at Narayana Health repeatedly mention that leukemia is no more a death sentence type of cancer, but can be cured with the help of the latest medical advancements. Bone marrow transplant is becoming an increasingly common treatment option for leukemia patients. A bone marrow donor can donate his/her white blood cells to an active leukemia patient. The patient’s WBC is replaced by injecting a substance that will stimulate the growth of the donated cells. The donor’s WBCs are then used to change the cancer patient’s blood structure as well as their immune system. Owing to this advanced mechanism, the process has resulted in a higher survival rate among kids and adults of up to 60%.
But it’s also important to understand that the chances of a leukemia survivor to easily relapse are very high. As cancer of the blood deals with a fluid system, the presence of even one cancer cell somewhere in the blood system, can spread again bringing back the disease to its fullest form. But, if a cancer patient has crossed the five-year survival mark, then chances of a relapse are rare.
Chemo, surgery and radiotherapy comprise the trinity of cancer treatments. While medicines and vaccines are an option for the treatment, they play a minor role in bettering the patient’s condition. Globally, chemo is the most effective option in most types of cancers. In the past, chemo was used to avoid death. But with recent developments such as bone marrow transplant and stem cell transplant, treatments seem to cure cancer.
Needless to say, a healthy diet, especially plenty of fruits and vegetables, will help boost the immune system and fight diseases. Plus, lots of exercise and a peaceful mind will help you not only prevent cancer but also help eliminate other diseases or health issues and improve the overall quality of life.
Are there any good cancers?
As strange as it may sound, there are a few good types of cancers. The term good here refers to a complete cure. Cancers such as thyroid is a favorable cancer, because the cure rate is almost 99%. However, if the stage is advanced, then more aggressive treatment is required. Likewise, Hodgkin lymphoma can be cured up to 50-60% even in its advanced stages.
Are stage 4 cancers really the end?
In most cancers, yes. Although N stage is terminal stage cancer, testicular cancer and lymphoma are exceptions. These two types can be cured and patients can continue to live a normal life afterwards. Doctors admit that stage 4 cancers cannot be cured. However, the focus leans more towards palliation-to extend their lifespan of the cancer patients and alleviate their symptoms. Treating stage 4 cancers is not only about the chemo or radiation, but focusing more on the quality of life.
Finally, to avoid the chances of getting cancer, put an end to living an unhealthy lifestyle and switch to a more active lifestyle, nutritious diet for a healthier well-being.