Cancer is such a frightening disease. There's so much about it many of us don't understand and it seems to strike at random, and without warning. So when I was invited by the CanHope Foundation to meet with Dr. Richard Quek, a Senior Consultant for Medical Oncology from the Parkway Cancer Centre in Singapore, I took it as an opportunity to learn what I could. Here are my takeaways:
1. What is cancer anyway?
Cancer is an abnormal genetic mutation. Our cells are programmed to become or to do certain things, but sometimes a cell may receive an abnormal set of instructions. This could result in old cells living too long instead of dying and being replaced, or new cells forming even when they are not needed. Cancer cells can grow out of control and become invasive.
2. Can we prevent cancer?
There are things we can do to minimize our risks. Some of the most common cancers can be prevented by doing the following:
Don't smoke. A lot of head and neck-related cancers can be prevented just by stopping smoking (and avoiding exposure to second-hand smoke).
Maintain a normal body weight. Obesity is associated with higher risk of certain types of cancer, not to mention a host of other chronic diseases. Another reason to mind the BMI.
Get vaccinated. Apparently the Hepatitis B vaccine can help prevent liver cancer. And of course for girls, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine can prevent cervical cancer.
Protect yourself against HIV. Stay safe. Barrier protection methods in particular, not only prevent HIV but other STDs (and unwanted pregnancy).
For women, avoid using birth control pills over extended periods of time as prolonged exposure to these exogenous hormones may increase your risk of breast cancer.
What about staying out of the sun?
Apparently in Asia, many cases of skin cancer occur in the hands, feet and one's private parts that don't see much sun. This means that though we should still practice smart sun exposure, UV exposure is only part of the story and other factors may be at play.
3. Early detection increases your chances of remission and recovery, so screen early and regularly.
It's always important to know what is "normal" for you and to see your doctor if you experience any weird symptoms. But also, make time for your annual physical exam, and request the following screening procedures:
Starting at age 40, have an annual mammogram and breast ultrasound. Mammograms look for abnormal calcifications, while ultrasounds look at size and whether a lump is solid or liquid. Yes, it's like being tortured, but those few seconds of discomfort are worth it. These machines can spot suspicious growths way before they are big enough to be detected through a manual breast exam.
Older women (50+) can do an annual mammogram plus the ultrasound every 2 years.
For younger women, a monthly Breast Self Exam is recommended. Refer to this article for the proper technique.
Get a pelvic exam to screen for gynecologic cancers.
For everyone, when you hit 50, get a colonoscopy
4. There is good progress in terms of treatment methods.
Many of us equate cancer treatment with physical removal of a tumor followed by chemotherapy, Some of you may also have heard of targeted therapy, which involves drugs that target specific genes or proteins to help stop cancer from growing or spreading. But researchers are tirelessly working to find solutions, and this year the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to two researchers for their work on cancer immunotherapy.
Dr. Quek said something very interesting about cancer cells: that they are able to "disguise" themselves as normal cells and thus evade the surveillance of a patient's immune system. But if a tumor from a patient were to be placed in another person's body, that other person's immune system would detect those cancerous cells and shut them down. So the idea of stimulating the patient's immune system to recognize and attack the threat was the basis for immunotherapy, a form of treatment that has shown very promising results.
Cancer is scary, but hopefully by arming ourselves with information, and focusing on prevention and early detection, we can minimize our risks and stay in control of the situation. Stay strong and healthy!
CanHope is a non-profit cancer counselling and support service by Parkway Cancer Centre. For more information, visit www.canhope.org.