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The importance of awareness in cancer prevention

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The paradox with cancer is that an estimated two-thirds of all cancers are preventable. However, the situation on the ground is so grim that according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Furthermore, across large swathes of the developing world, reports suggest that cancer is the most common affliction in deaths. In this context, experts have always opined that information and education are the keys to cancer prevention, early detection and to sound decision-making about treatment options. Doctors and other experts have often voiced that they’d rather prevent cancer, than have to diagnose, treat and cure it, because they could then save the patient of all the pain and agony of treatment.

Essentially, cancer prevention is all about awareness and this blog pivots on providing you with important insights relating to breast and liver cancer since October is primarily dedicated to creating awareness about these two common cancer types.

Breast cancer awareness

Thanks to largely stable incidence rates, improved treatment and outcomes, as well as early detection through screening, a woman’s risk of dying of breast cancer has dropped 39 per cent between the late 1980s and 2015, as per information by the American Cancer Society. However, despite this progress, there’s much more to be done. Breast cancer is still the second-leading cause of cancer death in women and there is still a large racial gap in mortality.

Causes of breast cancer

Numerous studies have indicated that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer in women by as much as 7-10 per cent for each one drink of alcohol consumed per day on average. Moreover, it has also been confirmed that obesity enhances the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer. Risk is about one and a half times higher in overweight women and about two times higher in obese women than in lean women. In this scenario, growing evidence suggests that women who get regular physical activity have a 10-25 per cent lower risk of breast cancer, compared to women who are inactive. Research has also pointed to the fact that smoking may slightly increase breast cancer risk, particularly long-term heavy smoking and among women who start smoking before their first pregnancy.

Common symptoms

Mindfulness is the most potent medication and though October is widely considered to be the ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month’ (pink ribbon), a worldwide annual campaign highlighting the importance of breast awareness, education and research, one should be vigilant year-round for prevention and symptoms.

As in all other cancers, the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed the better is the chance of successful treatment. Hence, it is important for women to check their breasts regularly. Though there’s no special technique and one doesn’t need training,one only needs to be mindful about spotting anything unusual. A common guidance is that women should check the whole area, including upper chest and armpits.If one spots any changes, it is essential to get checked by your doctor as soon as possible. Essentially, lumps are important to look for and can be the first symptom of breast cancer for many women. Regular screenings by experts can also go a long way in early detection. It is also important to put forth the fact that having some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean one has breast cancer. However, it is crucial to get checked to take the worry out of the equation.

Reducing risks

Although many things influence the risk of developing breast cancer (including genes and ageing, which are typically beyond one’s control), lifestyles can play a part too and making small alterations can go a long way in reducing risks. Leading a healthy lifestyle by limiting alcohol consumption, keeping to a healthy weight and being physically active can certainly help lower the chances of the affliction. It doesn’t take much time or effort to stack the odds in your favour against this lethal ailment.

>> One can reduce their risk of breast cancer by being physically active for around 20 minutes a day

>> One can reduce their risk by limiting the amount of alcohol consumed

>> One can reduce their risk after menopause by maintaining a healthy weight

>> One can reduce their risk by taking an informed decision about HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and contraceptive pills

Liver cancer awareness

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It filters harmful substances from the blood, produces bile that helps in digestion and stores sugar that the body uses for energy. There are two types of primary liver cancer in adults – hepatocellular carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma. Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of adult primary liver cancer with its incidence rising in relation to the spread of Hepatitis-C virus (HCV) infection. The grim finding is that the five-year survival rate is just about 18 per cent and hence awareness about liver cancer is the most critical in timely prevention and eventual treatment. Hence, October is dedicated as the ‘Liver Cancer Awareness Month’ (emerald green ribbon).

Causes of liver cancer

Having Hepatitis-B, Hepatitis-C or cirrhosis are significant risk factors for adult primary liver cancer. Liver cancer is more common in men than in women and represents the growth and spread of unhealthy cells in the liver. Cancer that originates in the liver is referred to as primary liver cancer. Cancer that spreads to the liver from another organ is referred to as metastatic liver cancer. HCC is the most common type of primary liver cancer and is on the rise around the world.

Scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) caused by too much alcohol use or infections with Hepatitis-B or C are largely representative of the causes of liver cancer. Significantly, about 80 per cent of primary liver cancers around the globe are caused by infection with Hepatitis-B or Hepatitis-C virus. Infection with this virus can affect one for many years and result in cirrhosis in the liver. Individuals can get infected through physical contact with the blood or bodily fluids of a person who has the virus in their body, with the infection caused by unprotected sex, sharing of unsterilized needles and blood transfusion (today, donated blood is mostly screened for the virus).

Common symptoms

Liver cancer presents a special challenge in the identification of symptoms because one may not notice any symptoms when the disease is starting and in its early stages. However, some common symptoms to keep an eye on include:

>> Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (a typical symptom of jaundice)

>> Darkening of the urine

>> Lightening in the colour of the stool

>> An overall feeling of lethargy, fatigue

>> Loss of usual appetite and weight loss

>> Swelling of the legs and abdomen

>> Pain or discomfort in the abdomen

With the symptoms neither being very evident nor visible, it is important that one gets an accurate diagnosis of primary liver cancer so that their condition can be treated the right way from the very beginning.

Reducing risks

Because primary liver cancer caused by viral Hepatitis tends to develop over the course of two to three decades, there are steps one can take to get screened for the infection and prevent it from advancing. One can lower their risk of developing liver cancer by embracing such healthy lifestyle measures as regular exercise, controlling weight and eating a healthy diet with limited amounts of alcohol. Furthermore, it is also important to avoid infection with the Hepatitis-B and C viruses. Vaccines for Hepatitis-B are available for children and adults. However, if one has chronic Hepatitis-B, they might be a candidate for antiviral therapy, which can considerably slow down the progression of liver disease and decrease (although not fully eliminate) the risk of liver cancer. While there is no vaccine for Hepatitis-C, the right treatment can eliminate the virus in most people.

Other liver cancer risk factors

In addition to infection with chronic Hepatitis-B and C, the following main conditions increase the risk of developing liver cancer.

>>Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: This disease causes triglycerides (fats) to gather in the liver, which can lead to its damage. It commonly occurs in overweight/obese individuals or who have type-2 diabetes or a metabolic syndrome characterized by high blood sugar, extra body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. With obesity on the rise, this has increasingly emerged as a risk factor for liver cancer.

>>Cirrhosis of the liver made worse by alcohol use: Alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of cancer in individuals infected with the Hepatitis-B or C virus and hence it is important to avoid drinking if one has viral Hepatitis.

>>Exposure to arsenic: This naturally-occurring substance is sometimes found in drinking water. It is also a part of vinyl chloride, a chemical used in making certain plastics that can increase one’s risk of liver cancer.

Armed with this information, we hope that you become more aware about these cancers and also play an active role in your community/society to raise awareness and help thwart the occurrence of an ailment that is easily preventable.

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