Yesterday, 4 February 2013, was World Cancer Day and South Africans are reminded that an estimated 40% of cancers can be prevented through the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, regular medical check-ups and taking preventative action, such as getting vaccinated.
According to Dr Anchen Laubscher, medical director of Netcare and Netcare 911, who was speaking on World Cancer Day, another myth that has developed around cancer is that it cannot be treated. "In fact, many cancers respond very well to treatment particularly if the disease is diagnosed early. It is therefore of critical importance that South Africans have themselves screened for the more common forms of the disease as this saves lives," she says.
"As the country's cancer registry was only recently reintroduced, there are no reliable statistics available on the prevalence of cancer in South Africa. However, with increasingly more people becoming urbanised and adopting less healthy western lifestyles and diets, it is believed that the disease is becoming more prevalent. It has been estimated that one in four males and one in six females in South Africa will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Therefore it is important to dispel many of the myths and misunderstandings about cancer by being informed on what proactive steps you could take to prevent it and what could be done to deal with the disease if it is diagnosed."
One of the ways to prevent the disease is to examine your environmental factors. Unhealthy eating habits, obesity, smoking, drinking alcohol, infections, overexposure to radiation or UV rays, lack of physical exercise and environmental pollutants can result in cancer. It is also important to know your family history of cancerous diseases and to mention it to your treating doctor, as genetic factors also do play a role.
The more common forms of cancer are among South African women include breast, cervical, colon, lung and skin cancer. The most common cancers affecting men include prostate, lung, skin, colon and liver cancer.
These cancers can be halted, by proactively managing your health. She advises women to examine their breasts on a monthly basis for irregularities. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK recommends that women at a moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of their family history should have annual mammograms in their 40s. A mammogram is a type of X-ray that is used to detect irregularities in the breast tissue. Those younger than 40 and at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, should be offered annual MRI scans from the age of 30 or 40, depending on their level of risk. If you have had tests that show a change in a gene (mutation) known to increase the risk of breast cancer, NICE suggests yearly MRI scans from the age of 20 for women with a TP53 mutation and from the age of 30 for women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.
Men should have a prostate examination as part of their annual medical check-up to screen for rectal and prostate cancers. For men at average risk, screening should start at age 50. However, men with a family history of prostate cancer should start screening at 40, says the American Urological Association with the schedule of follow-up testing to be determined on an individual basis.
According to Dr Laubscher, all women over the age of 21 (or sexually active) should also arrange a visit to their gynaecologist for a pap smear once every two years. This assists in detecting cervical cancer, which like many other forms of cancer is best detected and treated as soon as possible.
Vaccines, scopes, sunscreen
An effective, Nobel Prize winning vaccination is also available to protect against the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is a major cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine should be administered to girls before puberty, around the age of nine or ten and Dr Laubscher advises all parents to consider it for their daughters.
A vaccine to help prevent liver cancer is also available. The hepatitis B virus is a major cause of liver cancer. Vaccinating against the infection therefore provides outstanding protection against liver cancer.
There are a number of tests that are used to detect colon cancer. A colonoscopy is one of the better known tests and is today a routine procedure involving the colon being investigated by means of a remotely controlled scoping device. These devices are not only used to detect pre-cancerous polyps in the gut, but also to remove them. Ask your doctor when you should begin screening for colon cancer and what tests will be best for you.
To protect against skin cancer, all South Africans should wear wide brimmed hats, protective clothing and sunscreen with sun protector factor of 30 and a four to five star rating. Where possible, avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm, when the sun's rays are at their most damaging to the skin. Check your skin regularly for any moles or growths whether irritable or not, itching, bleeding, are more than one colour, or asymmetrical (the one side does not look like the other) in shape. Ask your doctor or dermatologist to investigate any suspicious growths or moles.
"Cancer is one of the most important healthcare challenges that our society faces today. It is therefore critical that all South Africans do their bit to combat this disease. We can all play our part by taking responsibility for our own health. Adopting a healthy lifestyle and being vigilant is one of the ways we can do this," she concludes.
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