A tech bro on Twitter asked what could be responsible for cancer and how it can be prevented, I replied that although there are strong risk factors (things that increase one’s chances of getting the disease) associated with the various cancers, the disease randomly chooses people in the general population like a game of Russian roulette. I added that the only thing one can do is to reduce the (modifiable) risk factors and hope to be among the majority spared by the illness.
I will buttress my response by throwing more light on some risk factors associated with common cancers in our environment and what can be done to reduce a person’s odds of coming down with this “emperor of maladies”. The commonest cancers in Nigeria are breast and cervical cancer in women and prostate cancer in men according to a study in 2012. Drawing on my experience in clinical practice, colorectal, liver and lung cancers are also fairly common especially amongst men in our environment.
The risk of coming down with this increases in women who;
- have had a breast cancer before,
- have a first degree relative (who is my first degree relative?) who has had breast cancer (it has a strong hereditary component),
- have never given birth or had their first child after 30 years,
- used hormone replacement therapy and/or combined oral contraceptives for a prolonged period,
- smoke cigarette, and
- have received a lot of radiation to their chest (multiple x-rays or CT scans).
If you have a close relative who has had the cancer or you have a lot of the risk factors here, you will need to be proactive in getting routine breast examination and breast cancer screening so it can be caught on time, at which point it is usually easily treatable. If caught late, chances of survival reduce drastically- this applies to most cancers.
Cervical Cancer (cancer of the cervix)
This is one of the few cancers that have been reliably tied with a sexually transmitted infectious agent – Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There is a direct causal link between long term HPV infection and cervical cancer. Smoking can also increase your risk.
The ways to reduce your risk include;
- practising safe sex with barrier methods (condoms, dental dams),
- receiving the HPV vaccine,
- going for a pap smear test as soon as you become sexually active.
Increasing age and being of African descent, alongside a family history of prostate cancer have all being identified as potential risk factors for the disease.
There is a surgery that takes care of the disease when detected early, so one’s best bet is to get regular prostate examination as they start to near 65 years, for prompt diagnosis and treatment. This cancer only occurs in males.
Alcohol, smoking, long term hepatitis B and C infection are all strong risk factors associated with this disease.
Reducing alcohol intake and quitting smoking will reduce ones chances of getting liver cancer. Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B and C goes a long way in protecting a person from the infection and in the long term, cancer of the liver.
Colorectal cancer (Bowel Cancer)
This is a cancer of the large intestine and rectum and is becoming increasingly commoner in younger people.
If your first degree relative has the cancer, your chances of getting it are markedly increased. Other risk factors include smoking and eating a lot of suya/smoked meat, red meat, etc- they contain harmful chemicals that can affect the DNA of the cells of the intestine and this can cause cancer.
The appropriate response will be to significantly reduce the intake of suya and smoked meat as well as getting an early screening for the disease, if a close family member has had the disease before.
According to numerous studies dating back to the early 20th century, cigarette smoking is the strongest risk factor associated with this. Studies have repeatedly proven this. For this reason, it will be a good idea to avoid smoking altogether, so we can reduce the odds of coming down with the cancer.
As you must have noticed, smoking cigarette (meta-analysis on tobacco smoking and cancers) and a family history of the disease were common to a lot of these cancers. Quitting smoking will definitely leave you with better chances.
If any of your parents has had any cancer, you and your siblings will need to be very proactive, read around the cancer and know the symptoms and screening tests required to catch it early. After which, you visit a medical doctor to examine and counsel you appropriately, if you haven’t done that already.
P.S: There is a popular novel on the history of cancer and advances made so far in the discipline of cancer care that might interest you –The Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. You should check it out.
Featured Image: National Cancer Institute