How to reduce your cancer risk, according to a doc

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Did you know that 51.5 per cent of cancer cases reported in Singapore are in women? And, between 2014 and 2018, 12,706 women in Singapore died of cancer? These stats are derived from The Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Report (2018).

Records show a worrying trend. Over the last 50 years, the number of cancer cases has risen sharply among Chinese and Malay women in Singapore. Among Chinese women, the incidence rate rose from 158.5 to 235.0 per 100,000 population. For Malay women, this figure more than doubled, from 98.5 to 222.7. The rate of cancer among Indian women remained relatively stable, from 181.9 to 186.4.

The three most common cancers for women in Singapore are:

1. Breast (29.3 per cent)

2. Colorectal (13.3 per cent)

3. Lung (7.5 per cent)

Other cancers that make up the top 10 cancers among women in Singapore are: Uterus (7.2 per cent), ovary (4.9 per cent), lymphoid neoplasms (such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma) (4.7 per cent), non-melanoma skin (4.1 per cent), thyroid (3.9 per cent), stomach (3 per cent) and cervix (2.8 per cent).

For men in Singapore, the top cancers are:

1. Colorectal (16.9 per cent)

2. Prostate (14.8 per cent)

3. Lung (14 per cent)

With World Cancer Day being marked on Feb 4 every year, it’s a timely reminder for us to keep a close eye on cancer risk factors, plus ways to prevent it.

What are the risk factors?

Clinical Assistant Professor Tanujaa D/O Rajasekaran, Consultant, Division of Medical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore, explains that it’s not usually possible to know exactly why one person develops cancer and another does not. However, research has shown that certain risk factors may increase a person’s chances of developing cancer.

She lists some of these risk factors for the top three cancers among women in Singapore:

How to reduce your cancer risk, according to a doc Breast cancer risk factors

  • Family history of breast cancer
  • Genetic alterations in certain genes such as the Breast Cancer gene 1 and 2 (BRCA1 and BRCA2)
  • Beginning menstruation early (before 12 years old)
  • Developing menopause late (after 55 years old), with or without the use of postmenopausal hormone therapy to delay menopause
  • Having a personal history of breast cancer or non-cancerous breast conditions

Lung cancer risk factors

  • Smoking is the strongest risk factor for lung cancer. The risk of lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years of smoking. However, quitting smoking can reduce the risk for lung cancer regardless of how many years a person has smoked. The risk of cancer goes down after quitting
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke, radiation, and asbestos are other risk factors for lung cancer

Colorectal cancer risk factors

  • Colorectal cancer can occur at any age but it usually arises after the age of 50
  • Personal history of previous colorectal polyps
  • A diet that’s high in red meats and processed meats
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Family history (e.g. a parent, child, brother or sister) of colorectal cancer

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What can you do to lower your risk?

The patterns of cancer in women in Singapore follows the worldwide trend. “Cancer incidence rates in Singapore continue to increase as the population ages and as the country develops,” explains Prof Tanujaa. “The increase in cancer is most noticeable in colorectal, breast and prostate cancers, mirroring the most common cancers seen in other developed countries.”

This doesn’t mean we should sit back and watch the trends go on. Even though some cases of cancer are inexplicable and nobody knows how the patient got it, there are some things medical professionals advise women to do to lower our risk of getting cancer.

Prof Tanujaa shares the top lifestyle practices to adopt:

1. Exercise regularly. Physical activity has been shown to reduce one’s risk of colon cancer. Exercise also appears to reduce a woman’s risk of breast and possibly gynaecological cancers.

2. Avoid tobacco in all its forms, including exposure to secondhand smoke.

3. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Reduce your consumption of saturated fat and red meat, which may increase the risk of colon cancer. Increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

“Women should also be aware of the national recommended screenings available to them, including mammogram (for breast cancer), colonoscopy or fecal occult blood testing (for colorectal cancer) and pap smear test (for cervical cancer),” she adds.

“Individuals are advised to discuss the pros and cons of screening with their doctor before deciding on the type of test/screening to undergo.”

Common myths about cancer

In the era of fake news, it’s even more important to ensure that the knowledge we have about any medical conditions comes from the experts. Here are some common misconceptions about cancer:

Myth #1: Only smokers get lung cancer

Approximately 10 per cent to 15 per cent of all lung cancers arise in people who have never smoked.

Myth #2: Cancer is a death sentence

A lot has changed in the sphere of cancer treatments. Since the 1990s, the likelihood of dying from cancer has dropped steadily.

“About a third of all cancers can be cured if they are detected and treated early,” Prof Tanujaa says.

“Today, about nine in 10 people with certain early-stage cancers – such as breast, prostate and thyroid cancers – survive for at least five years after their cancer is diagnosed. The availability of new cancer treatments also means that more people with advanced cancers can live longer with better quality of life,” she adds.

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Myth #3: Cancer treatment will cause you more harm than good

Types of cancer treatments include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy. While such treatments can be physically and mentally exhausting, they’re targeted at improving symptoms, prolonging life and even curing cancer.

Prof Tanujaa explains that some side effects are to be expected but these can usually be managed. Anyone who has any concerns about their cancer treatment should talk to their doctor before refusing treatment entirely, as it could be a matter of life and death.

Myth #4: People who have cancer shouldn't eat sugar, as it can cause cancer to grow faster

More research is needed to understand the relationship between sugar in the diet and cancer. While all kinds of cells in our body – including cancer cells – depend on blood sugar (glucose) for energy, giving more sugar to cancer cells doesn’t make them grow faster. Which also means that depriving cancer cells of sugar doesn’t make them grow more slowly.

“However, a high-sugar diet can cause you to gain excess weight and increase your risk of diabetes. People who are obese or have diabetes have a higher risk of developing certain cancers,” says Prof Tanujaa.

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This article was first published in Her World Online.