Cancer, the disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissue, kills more than half a million people a year in the U.S. alone, making cancer the second leading cause of death in the country, exceeded only by heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).
Many factors contribute to why so many people develop the disease in the first place, many of which one can control entirely. However, “we take better care of our cars than out bodies,” Dr. Soumit Basu, Northeast region director of Hematology and Oncology at Geisenger, says. And lot of misconceptions about the condition remain. It is not a death sentence by any means.
If there is one behavior that increases the risk of cancer the most, it’s smoking, Dr. Basu says. Some factors are outside of your control — such as genes and exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment — but what you _do_ is totally up to you. Considering what it does to the body and how it increases the risk of cancer and heart disease, two of the top killers in the world — there's simply no reason for anyone to continue smoking, he adds.
It’s a collection of different ailments the way heart disease is, Dr. Basu says. Therefore, there is no cure for it, he adds. Different cancers affect different cells of the body and require different treatments. “Some are more effective than others, and it often depends on how early you catch it.
Unlike what you see in movies, nowadays treatments for many cancers is very tolerable, Dr. Basu says. “Some patients may not even lose any hair, chemotherapy can be just a pill, and women may not need a mastectomy if the cancer is caught early.” You have to find out what type you have exactly and be open about how it can be treated, he adds.
Not all cancer needs to be removed in order for a patient to be OK, Dr. Basu says. It’s like diabetes – there is no cure, but if you manage the illness, you don’t have to suffer and can lead a happy and healthy life. Multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, is one example, he adds. “It’s not ‘if I’m not cured, I’m done’; there is a middle ground.”
It really depends on the type of cancer, but overall, more people beat or manage it for a long time than die from it, Dr. Basu says. “With common cancers we do very well.” Take breast and colon cancer, for example. The average 5-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is 90 percent and the average 10-year survival rate is 83 percent. And the 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I colon cancer is about 92 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
This is the case even with tougher cancers, Dr. Basu says. The reason is newer and better treatments as well as improved tests, which have made it possible to detect some tumors in very early stages. There are also various screening programs for people who are at risk of developing cancer due to family history, Dr. Basu adds. “It’s like putting out small fires to avoid a blaze.”
Viruses account for about 20 percent of total human cancer cases, research shows. The Epstein–Barr virus (EBV) can cause certain types of lymphoma, Dr. Basu says. The Human papillomavirus (HPV) has been known to cause cervical cancer, but it can also lead to neck and head cancers, he adds. “Something many people don’t know about if that many HIV-positive people in the 80’s developed different kinds of cancer.” People with weaker immune systems are more prone to cancer, he adds, which is just another good reason to be more mindful of our hygiene habits, he adds.
Most people still think of chemotherapy as an IV medication with toxic side effects, Dr. Basu says. “But it can be just a pill.” There is a number of agents that have been designed to control the spread of cancer, but not kill it. For example, chronic myeloid leukemia (CLM), which is a slowly progressing type of blood-cell cancer that begins in the bone marrow, can’t be cured unless you have a bone marrow transplant, Dr. Basu adds. There are pills that don’t make the leukemia go away forever but control the spread of cancer cells, he adds.
“Cancer is basically your own body turning on itself,” Dr. Basu says. There is a policing function within the body that gets activated if cells go bad; immune system cells typically get rid of malfunctioning cells. “But sometimes the immune system may not recognize them, because the body is trained not to attack its own cells.” Sometimes by the time symptoms are manifested, the cancer has spread too much and little can be done to control or cure it.
“Unfortunately, most people come to us after they have experienced symptoms for a while,” Dr. Basu says. Ideally, people would pay more attention to their health and go for annual checkups during which blood work and tests can show irregularities that can then be investigated. The sooner you find the cancer the better.
If a family member has had cancer, be sure to check with your doctor if you should be screened earlier then recommended, Dr. Basu says. In some cases, cancer can be caused by an abnormal gene that is inherited, even though it may or may not lead to cancer. Still, be mindful of the fact that, for example, breast and colon cancers have strong family associations, Dr. Basu says. Leukemia, on the other hand, does not.
Between 1990 and 2014, it fell by 25 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. The most recent SEER Cancer Statistics Review, released in April 2018, shows that cancer death rates decreased by: 1.8 percent per year among men from 2006 to 2015, 1.4 percent per year among women from 2006 to 2015, and 1.4 percent per year among children ages 0–19 from 2011 to 2015.
People with family history of skin cancer and with multiple atypical moles are at higher risk. Also, the older you get, the higher your chances are of developing skin cancer due to accumulated exposure to UV radiation. But skin cancers are increasingly being found in younger individuals, according to Dr. Elizabeth Hale, a board-certified dermatologist. The theory is this is because they are spending more time outside. Weakened immune system, genetics and long-term skin inflammation are also risk factors.
“They are incredibly dangerous and, unfortunately, very poplar,” Dr. Hale says. By using tanning beds and lamps you are exposing your skin to ultraviolet radiation. “Even before you’re 35, you increase your chance of developing skin cancer by 75 percent; each session increases it by additional 20 percent,” she adds. Also, people tend to expose parts of the body that don’t normally see a lot of sun, Dr. Hale says. These areas are very sensitive and prone to skin cancer.
Possibly due to increased exposure to the sun, men older than 50 have a higher risk of developing melanoma than the general population, according to AAD. In 2016, it is estimated that 10,130 deaths will be attributed to melanoma — 6,750 men and 3,380 women. There are two peaks in skin cancer, according to Dr. Hale: In women younger than 40 and older men. “Men have the highest mortality because they often detect the cancer in later stages,” she adds. “Women tend to get their skin checked more often, leading to early detection,” she adds.
“It has even overcome smoking,” Dr. Nita Lee from the University of Chicago Medicine says. A large percent of breast and ovarian cancer, especially, is associated with obesity, she adds. Cancers associated with overweight people and obesity make up 40 percent of Cancers Diagnosed in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some grow for long before they cause pain, others very rapidly. So don’t skip your annual checkup. People often do because of non-specific warning signs. But whether non-definitive symptoms indicate cancer depends on the patient’s age, medical and family history, and health habits, Dr. Solomon Graf, a hematology/oncology specialist for UW Medicine and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, says. Routine screening has been proven to be effective in preventing the disease, he adds.
Studies have investigated whether people with higher Vitamin D intakes or higher blood levels of Vitamin D have lower risks of specific cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. The cancers for which the most human data are available are colorectal, breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. Research suggests that Vitamin D acts as an anti-tumor agent by regulating genes involved in the spread of cancer cells. Another important mineral is calcium. Some evidence suggests that men and women who had the highest intakes of calcium had a reduced risk of some cancers.
Reducing the sugar content in products comes at a price. Artificial sweeteners are added to preserve the taste, but they have been shown to cause even more damage than sugar itself. Splenda is among the worst, as it has been linked to different types of cancer. However, more studies need to be done to confirm a connection. Experiments on rats have shown that Aspartame, the market names of which are NutraSweet® and Equal®, can cause the development of cancerous cells in different parts or the body. The sweetener’s carcinogenic effects are increased when exposure begins in the womb.
Each contributed 12.3 percent of the total number of new cases diagnosed in 2018 alone, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. The top three cancers in men – lung, prostate and colorectal cancers – contributed 44.4 percent of all cancers (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer). The top three cancers in women – breast, colorectal and lung cancers – contributed 43.9 percent of all cancers, also excluding non-melanoma skin cancer.