The thought of cancer strikes fear into anyone’s heart – but, equipped with the correct information, you can work towards effective prevention or treatment.
Your risk increases with age
Dr Georgia Demetriou, an oncologist at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, explains that the risk of many – but not all – types of this disease increases with age. The risk of breast cancer (the most common cancer in women) does increase with age, although younger women may still develop it. Yet the risk of cervical cancer has nothing to do with age.
Prostate cancer (the most common type in men) is rarely found in patients under the age of 40. But colon cancer, which is traditionally associated with aging, is occurring more often in younger people due to the increase in lifestyle diseases.
Demetriou says there are two reasons why your risk of being diagnosed could increase with age: your cells have had more time to undergo mutations, and your telomeres shorten.
When healthy cells mutate into cancerous cells, the mutation makes them resistant to the natural process of cell death (apoptosis). This is one reason why cancer is so difficult to cure.
We all undergo a certain level of cellular mutation due to environmental and genetic factors. Demetriou explains that the older you are, the more time your cells have had to undergo exposure to environmental risk factors that cause mutations. It is also more likely that they have passed these on to other cells. This increases your risk of cancer.
Telomeres protect your chromosomes from damage and ensure that your cells can do their jobs. As you age, your telomeres shorten and there is a natural process of cellular degradation. If the instructions for cell death are positioned towards the end of your telomeres, they are removed first, Demetriou says. This makes you more vulnerable to mutations.
Did you know?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been associated with a 170% increased risk of breast cancer, according to the Institute of Cancer Research.
Cancer can also be treated by blocking nutrient pathways to affected cells and essentially “starving” them to death.
How can you prevent it?
According to Demetriou, while you can’t guarantee the prevention of cancer, taking these lifestyle measures does have a positive impact:
- Avoid smoking;
- Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol;
- Eat a diet low in saturated fats and refined sugars;
- Exercise regularly;
- Apply sunblock daily; and
- Maintain a healthy weight.
Did you know?
You can be genetically predisposed to this disease as a result of inherited genes. But this predisposition appears sporadically in patients who have no such family history.
How is cancer treated?
There are five treatment options: surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy.
Dr Demetriou explains: “If the cancer is caught early, we will surgically remove the affected cells. We may then also recommend either chemo or radiotherapy to ensure that any residual cells, which may have spread to other tissue, are eliminated. Of course, there is no guarantee that the cancer will never return, which is why we recommend regular check-ups after treatment.”
Radiotherapy works by, essentially, “burning the cells to death”. “This technique has been improved over the years, and, as a result, we are now able to target more precise areas of affected cells,” she adds. “There is still a collateral fallout when it comes to healthy cells in the area, but this is now reduced.”
“Every chemotherapy drug is effective at a different point in the cell cycle. This is because certain cancer cells are more vulnerable to being eliminated at different points in their cycle. So, chemo treatment usually takes the form of a combination of different drugs to ensure maximum efficacy,” Demetriou elaborates.
The first thing cancer cells do is deactivate our T-cells, which destroys our immune system’s capacity to fight back. Immunotherapy aims to enhance that ability. These drugs work by blocking receptors on our T-cells, which prevents their deactivation. Click on the link to find out the newest research of this treatment.
- Hormone therapy:
Some cancers use hormones to grow. Hormone- blocking therapy is the use of medicines to block the effects of hormones. It does not work for all cancers; it is used to treat cancers that are hormone-sensitive or -dependent.
The two-step approach to preventing cancer is to live a healthy lifestyle and stay vigilant. If you receive a diagnosis, it is key to engage with your doctor and follow the prescribed treatment. Remember, your health is ultimately in your hands.