Facts and figures about Cancer
One in three of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetime. The likelihood of cancer developing in a 20 year old is very low but doubles every 10 years. By age 90, there is a strong chance that a cancer has developed, even if there are no symptoms. More than 70% of cancers in the UK occur in people who are aged 65+
Five thousand people are diagnosed with cancer every week in the UK. But, to put it in perspective, the apparent increase in cancer is partly due to people living longer than in the past and thus increasing their risk. The two commonest forms of it from which people die worldwide are lung and stomach cancer.
What is cancer?
The unregulated multiplication of a cell-line following the mutation of cellular DNA, which escapes the bodies’ normal control mechanisms and produces symptoms, over months or years, from pressure locally on surrounding tissue, and remotely following spread via blood and lymph channels to other parts of the body. The latent time from cancer initiation to the point when it causes symptoms may be many years.
What causes it?
There are multiple factors, though we are far from identifying in detail how such a complex process works:
1. There is a genetic predisposition in some families eg breast and prostate cancer have identifiable genotypes which can be tested for. They indicate risk and not the presence of cancer itself.
2. Chemical carcinogens, accounting for a third of cancers, are present in food and drink (see below). Hydrocarbons from inhaled cigarette smoke contains many carcinogens and remains a major cause of bronchial cancer. Passive smoking carries a 30% risk.
Alcohol increases the risk of cancer in the digestive tract and liver; historically chimney sweeps got testicular cancer from carcinogenic hydrocarbons in soot; recently some forms of crispbread have been associated with gut cancer due to the high temperature used in their manufacture.
3. Air pollution eg asbestos causes asbestosis and mesothelioma of the lungs. Occupational health risks are increasingly recognised.
4. Sunlight and sun tanning in excess initiate skin damage leading to hyperkeratosis, squamous cell cancer (benign) and melanoma (high mortality).
5. Deodorants and sexually transmitted diseases (eg papilloma virus) cause cervicitis and cervical cancer.
Diagnosis and Prevention
What you can do:
Get yourself screened annually: Screening is acknowledged as a way to pick up breast, prostate and skin cancers.
Breast Cancer. Mammograms are offered 3 yearly and though uncomfortable are better at detecting tumours than self-examination. Breast cancer remains a risk in women over 60. Breast-feeding protects while sex hormones and HRT heighten risk of cancer later.
Prostate cancer is often inactive and (may be) a chance finding at autopsy, while Benign Prostatic Hypertrophy (BPH) is frequent by age 60. A diagnosis of prostate cancer is therefore difficult and the chemical measure of prostate cellular activity (PSA) is just that, an indicator of gland activity rather than cancer, unless the level is very high or the slope of repeat testing is steep. An ultrasound of the gland with a biopsy may be necessary to make the diagnosis. Symptoms such as a reduced urinary stream and getting up at night to pass urine indicate BPH rather than a cancer.
Colonic cancer is familial. Bleeding, even occult blood, from the bowel is a late sign – too late. Hence the recent push to have a colonoscopy (every 5 years, starting age 50 and a must if there is a family history).
What you can do:
1. Examine yourself: Breast and testicular cancer can be found by monthly self-examination. But any unusual change eg a lump in a male breast is worth having checked out.
2. Avoid known carcinogens when you can eg passive smoking, crop-spraying, paint fumes and dyes, heavy metals, irradiation.
3. Reduce saturated fats in your diet; increase your fibre intake and fresh fruit and veg. (a better source of antioxidants than vitamin supplements).
4. Take supplements of antioxidants such as vitamins A,C, and E (which will eliminate cancer producing free radicals). Limit consumption of smoked or burnt fish and meat.