What is Cancer and what causes it?
Cancer is a collection of over 200 diseases in which cells of an organ or tissue in the body become abnormal, growing and multiplying out of control. Normal cells grow and reproduce themselves throughout the body in an orderly and controlled manner to replace worn out tissue, to heal wounds, and to maintain healthy organs. When cells grow out of control, they usually form a mass, called a tumour.
Some tumours grow and enlarge only at the site where they begin and these are referred to as benign tumours. Others not only enlarge locally but also have the potential to invade and destroy surrounding normal tissue and to spread to distant parts of the body. These are called malignant tumours or cancers.
Distant spread of a cancer occurs when malignant cells become detached from the original (primary) tumour, get carried to other parts of the body and establish themselves in the new site as an independent (secondary) cancer. A tumour that has spread in this manner is said tohave metastasized and the secondary tumour (or tumours) is called a metastasis (or metastases).
NOTE: Not all cancers form solid tumours. For example, in cancer of the blood cells (leukaemia) many abnormal blood cells are made in the bone marrow and circulate in the bloodstream.[i]
Cancer is NOT caused by witchcraft or any form of supernatural force. Cancer is a disease that can affect anyone, anywhere, in any country, at anytime. Cancer is a complex group of diseases with many possible causes. Some of the known causes of cancer include:
- Genetic factors
- Lifestyle factors such as tobacco use, diet, physical inactivity;
- Certain types of infections. Some viruses are linked to certain cancers. E.g. those with persistent infection with the Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C virus have an increased risk of developing cancer of the liver.
- Environmental exposures to different types of chemicals and radiation.[ii]
- Age: The older you are, the more likely that you will develop a cancer. This is probably due to a build up of damage to cells in the body over time. Also, the body’s defences and resistance against abnormal cells may become weaker as you get older.
- Immune System: Those with a compromised immune system have an increased risk of developing certain cancers. E.g. people with HIV/AIDS, or people on immunosuppressive treatment. [iii]
What lifestyle choices can I make to help me fight Cancer?
- Eat a balanced diet.*
- Get regular physical activity.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Get 10-15 minutes of sunshine a day.
- Do, eat, live everything in moderation. Reduce stress.
- Take in plenty of fresh air. Get help to stop smoking if you are a smoker.
- Allow yourself 8 hours of sleep at night for optimum rest.
- Trust – trusting in a higher power helps reduce stress.
*Balanced diet defined:
- Eat a healthy diet, with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Eat in moderation.
- Eat food as close as possible to its natural form
- Limit your intake of processed foods
- Limit or eliminate your intake of alcohol [1 drink per day for women, 2 per day for men].
What are some signs and symptoms of Cancer?
You cannot afford to ignore cancer. Instead, you should know some of the general signs and symptoms of cancer. But remember, having any of these does not mean that you have cancer—many other things cause these signs and symptoms, too. If you have any of these symptoms and they last for a long time or get worse, please see a doctor to find out what’s going on:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Prolonged fever
- Prolonged, unexplained pain
- Skin changes
- Change in bowel habits or bladder function
- Sores that do not heal
- White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue
- Unusual vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Thickening or lump in the breast or other parts of the body
- Indigestion or trouble swallowing
- Recent change in a wart or mole
- Any new skin change[iv]
How is Cancer diagnosed?
If a cancer is suspected from your symptoms:
-Your doctor will examine you to look for abnormalities such as a lump under the skin or an enlarged liver.
-You may be referred for tests such as X-rays, scan, blood tests, endoscopy, colonoscopy, bronchoscopy, etc depending on where the suspected cancer is situated. These tests can often find the exact site of a suspected cancer. However, a biopsy** is often needed to be certain that the abnormality is a cancer and not something else (such as a benign tumour).
** What is a Biopsy?
This is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. It is then examined under the microscope to look for abnormal cells.[v]
What are the treatment options for Cancer?
Treatment options vary, depending on the type of cancer and how far it has grown or spread. The three most common treatments are:
- Surgery: It may be possible to operate and remove malignant turmours.
- Chemotherapy: This is a treatment that uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells, or to stop them from multiplying. There are various different types of drugs used for chemotherapy. The drug or combination of drugs selected depends on the type of cancer being treated.
- Radiotherapy: This is a treatment that uses high energy beams of radiation which are focused on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops cancer cells from multiplying.
Most recently other treatments have been introduced, but are NOT widely available in Kenya. These include:
- Bone marrow transplant: High dose chemotherapy may damage bone marrow cells and lead to blood problems. However, if you receive healthy bone marrow after the chemotherapy then this helps to overcome this problem.
- Hormone therapy: This is where drugs are used to block the effects of hormones. This treatment may be used for cancers that are “hormone sensitive” such as some cancers of the breast, prostate and uterus.
- Immunotherapy: Some treatments can boost the immune system to help to fight cancer. More specific immunotherapy involves injections of antibodies which aim to attack and destroy certain types of cancer cells.
- Gene therapy is a new area of possible treatments. Research is underway to find ways of blocking, repairing or replacing abnormal genes in cancer cells.
- Special techniques can sometimes be used to cut off the blood supply to tumours. The tumour then dies.
For some cancers, a combination of two or more treatments may be used. A range of other treatments may also be used to ease cancer related symptoms such as pain.[vi]
What are the aims of treatment?
This can vary, depending on the cancer type, size, spread, etc. For example:
- Treatment may cure the cancer in many cases. With modern drugs and therapies, many cancers can be cured, particularly if they are treated in the early stages of the disease. Sometimes the word ‘remission’ rather than the word ‘cured’ is used to mean there is no evidence of cancer following treatment. If you are ‘in remission’, you may be cured. However, in some cases a cancer returns months or years later.
- Treatment may aim to control the cancer. If a cure is not realistic, with treatment it is often possible to limit the growth or spread of the cancer so that it progresses less rapidly. This may keep you free of symptoms for some time.
- Treatment may aim to ease symptoms. Even if a cure is not possible, a course of radiotherapy, an operation, or other techniques may be used to reduce the size of a cancer which may ease symptoms such as pain. If a cancer is advanced then you may require treatments such as painkillers, or other comfort measures to help keep you free of pain or other symptoms. See the listing of Hospitals with Palliative Care for more information.
It is not possible to give an overall outlook (prognosis). As a general rule, the outlook is usually better the earlier a cancer is detected and treated. If you have been diagnosed with cancer you will have many questions.
Some questions you may want to ask your doctor
- What kind of cancer have I got?
- How large is it and has it spread to other parts of my body?
- What are the treatment options for this type of cancer?
- What are the risks and possible side effects of the treatment options?
- How successful is the treatment for my type and stage of cancer?
- Is the aim of treatment to cure or to control the cancer?
- What if I choose not to have treatment?
- Can I have a second opinion?
Some myths/misconceptions about Cancer
- Cancer is a death sentence.
- Cancer is witchcraft.
- Cancer can be cured by herbal treatment.
- Nothing can be done to stop the further spread of cancer.
- Cancer is a punishment or curse from God caused by breaking some rules.
- A pregnant mother with cancer will automatically give birth to a child with cancer.[vii]
What can you do to dispel the myths and misconceptions about Cancer?
- Talk about Cancer! Talk to your friends, your neighbors, your children, your family members.
- Share this Cancer Resource Guide with your community – churches, schools, community centers!
- Contact your local clinic for testing. Use this Cancer Resource Guide to find information about a clinic near you. Don’t wait, act now!
- Talk to a dietician or nutritionist about specific foods to help you fight cancer!
- Let’s work together to get Cancer out of the dark and into the light! As a community, we can break the stigma of Cancer, and fight cancer together!
[i] Source: ‘Cancer – Overview’. Patient information pamphlet, Oncology Department, Aga Khan University Hospital.
[ii] Source: American Cancer Society – complete reference
[iii] Source: ‘Cancer – Overview’. Patient information pamphlet, Oncology Department, Aga Khan University Hospital.
[iv] American Cancer Society
[v] Source: ‘Cancer – Overview’. Patient information pamphlet, Oncology Department, Aga Khan University Hospital.
[vi] Source: ‘Cancer – Overview’. Patient information pamphlet, Oncology Department, Aga Khan University Hospital.
[vii] Source: ‘Cancer – Overview’. Patient information pamphlet, Oncology Department, Aga Khan University Hospital.