Cancer |02 February 2024
How many of us have lost a loved one, a family member, a friend or colleague to cancer? The truth is, even losing one person is far too many. Cancer remains one of the most eluded disease of modern conventional medicine.
Despite years of cancer research, improvements in cancer screening, treatment and prevention, the cure for cancer remains out of reach. A cancer diagnosis can quickly appear as a life sentence for its victim. Even after receiving treatment and being free from the disease, the possibility of a resurgence remains a looming threat.
World cancer day is celebrated annually on February 4, to help create greater awareness about cancer globally. It is a global initiative led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). This is an opportunity for cancer survivors, individuals and different organisations from the public and private sector to come together and spread the word about cancer. The recurring theme is ‘Close the care gap’, urging each and everyone one of us to consider what contribution we can make in reducing the global impact of cancer.
This is not the first time we have talked about cancer and it certainly will not be the last. After all, the more we talk about it, the greater the awareness in helping to lower your risk of getting this deadly disease. It is only fitting that we start off by understanding a bit more about cancer, in terms of what it is, the common forms and its risk factors.
When we look at the risk factors we want to especially focus on the modifiable ones because they are the ones you have control over. It is however worth noting the non-modifiable ones so that you are better prepared. We will finish off by looking at how you can reduce your risk of developing cancer in the first place.
What is cancer?
The best way to describe cancer is by first starting with what usually happens in the body. The human body is made up of billions of cells which undergo cell division every day. When cells become damaged or old, they die and are replaced by new cells. When this process is disrupted, abnormal or damaged cells grow and multiply instead of being destroyed.
These abnormal cells may start to divide at a rapid rate, outnumbering, infiltrating and destroying normal cells. These cells live for longer, grow and divide faster than normal cells. As time passes, cancer forms as the abnormal cells multiply out of control. Cancer can usually form anywhere in the body but also has the ability to spread to other parts of the body where new cancer cells can then form.
Cancer cells emerge from abnormal cells. This abnormality is due to changes (mutations) to the DNA within cells. DNA is the molecule that carries genetic information. The DNA inside a cell is packaged into a large number of individual genes. Each of these genes contain a set of instructions that controls the way our cells function, including how to grow and divide.
Cancer can happen due to genetic changes caused by errors as the cell divides; damage to DNA due to environmental triggers commonly known as carcinogens (substances capable of causing cancer) such as certain chemicals; or inherited gene mutations from parents.
During normal cell growth, gene mutation is not uncommon. However, the body has mechanisms in place to identify these errors and normally eliminates cells with damaged DNA before they turn cancerous. Occasionally an abnormal cell may be missed, giving rise to cancer over time.
Risk factors for cancer
A cancer risk factor is anything that can increase your risk of developing cancer but it does not directly cause cancer. We want to reassure you that even if you have a risk factor that does not imply that you will definitely develop cancer. In reality, a person may have one or more risk factors but may never develop cancer. On the contrary, others with no known risk factors may still develop cancer.
Non-modifiable risk factors
Common non-modifiable risk factors which are the things you cannot change, include age and genetic predisposition. Most cases of cancer occur in older adults above the age of 65 years. However, it is worth remembering that cancer can occur at any age. One of the main reasons why you are more prone to cancer as you age is because cancer takes a long time to develop and the body’s ability to find and destroy abnormal cells tends to decline with age.
When it comes to genetics, only a small portion of cancers are due to an inherited condition. Having a family history of cancer, does not imply however that you will definitely get it but rather that you have a higher chance of getting it.
Modifiable risk factors
Modifiable risk factors are those that you have control over, so you can change. It includes lifestyle habits and to a certain extent environmental exposures. Certain lifestyle habits that are known to increase your risk of cancer include smoking, drinking more than two units of alcohol per day, excessive sunlight exposure, being obese, and having unsafe sex which increases the risk of certain infections.
Certain chemicals found in your environment can also increase your cancer risk. This includes asbestos, which is a group of minerals found in some older housing and industrial building materials; benzene found in gasoline and radiation exposure from medical imaging like x-ray.
Preventing cancer by changing lifestyle behaviours
Adopting a healthy diet is one of the most important changes that you should make. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils and beans have been found to be protective against certain forms of cancer. In order to ensure your diet is diversified you should also include fish, eggs, lean meat and milk products every day.
Engage in regular physical activity in order to reduce your cancer risk further. You should aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity on at least 5 days a week. Consider walking, dancing, sports or exercise. If you are used to sitting for long periods of time, then get up for a walk regularly. As always start slow and gradually build up to get to 30 minutes or longer.
Aim for a healthy body weight by losing weight if you are overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of cancer. Gradual weight loss is encouraged by making dietary changes and engaging in regular physical activity.
Being smoke-free is one of the ways to reduce your risk of several types of cancer aside from lung cancer. The idea here is that if you smoke, you should aim to quit. If you do not smoke, then you should not start. Quitting smoking now will reduce your risk of cancer in the future.
Avoid alcohol as it is linked to many forms of cancers. Therefore, if you do not usually drink then you should not start. However, if you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to two drinks a day for women and men.
The bottom line
It might not be possible to prevent all forms of cancer. However, you can certainly reduce your risk by making certain lifestyle changes. By making these changes you are also reducing your risk of other major chronic diseases.
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Yours in health
The Nutrition Team