This is such a broad term and most people associate it with the word ‘death’. However, many inspiring survivors beg to differ and have stressed that early detection and treatment saves lives.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of diseases whereby abnormal cells divide at fast rates- they infiltrate normal body tissue and end up destroying normal cells. So, what is a cell? What is an abnormal cell and what happens with cancer? Cells are found in every part of the body. They take nutrients from our foods and convert them into energy to carry out their specific functions throughout the body. A cell can also make copies of themselves, often at the end of their life span.

What happens is, cells have this built-in mechanism that tells the cell when it must die, so that the body can replace that cell with a newer or upgraded cell that functions better once it does. However, if that mechanism stops working and the old cell does not die as it is supposed to, it grows and divides uncontrollably, at a fast rate, creating and forming the abnormal cell. These abnormal cells thereafter infiltrate and destroy the normal cells. Once these abnormal cells build up and occupy the tissue space, it forms an easily detectable cluster called a tumor.

A tumour is, therefore, a mass of abnormal cells, clustered together in body tissue. This tissue may be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous) and can grow into large growths that do not spread or invade other parts of the body. E.g. A lump in a breast. Hence, benign tumours do not spread to other body parts or create new tumours. Malignant tumours crowd out healthy cells; it interferes with body functions and draws nutrients from body tissues like a parasite. How do these abnormal cells spread? Cancerous cells grow and spread by being carried through the blood stream and lymphatic system, leading to the development of tumours in other parts of the body.

What is the immune system and does it fight cancer?

The immune system is the body’s defense system that fights off attacks from harmful agents, infections, and abnormal cells. This is a natural process that humans cannot control but which is influenced by lifestyle choices and genetics. In some cases, certain cancer cells can escape detection, eliminate phases, and form tumors.

What are the causes of cancer?

Cancer is caused by damage to genes or cells, due to exposure to different factors. The most common factors are biological, such as:

  • Genetics. If you have a family history of cancer, then you should take extra care of yourself. Being genetically predisposed to cancer increases your chances of developing it later in life.
  • Age, Gender, Skin type
  • Most of the other causes of cancer are controllable and hence preventable
  • Environmental factors- ultraviolet radiation, sun exposure, radiation
  • Lifestyle factors-Smoking or excessive alcohol use, diet (poor nutrition)
  • Occupational factors- exposure to chemicals, asbestos, metals

What are some signs to look out for?

  • Unexplainable or constant pain
  • Sudden weight loss (without trying)
  • Fatigue- constantly feeling weak and tired for no reason
  • Fever
  • Any changes in the skin, thickening or lumps
  • Sores that do not want to heal
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Changes in warts or moles
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits

What are the most common treatment options available?

Each treatment method requires careful consideration and support. Treatment is usually prescribed by a doctor and based on a number of factors. This includes the type of cancer the person has been diagnosed with, its stage, and the overall health that the person is in at that current time. But, the most common treatments are Chemo and/or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is a medication that is directly aimed at targeting the rapidly dividing cells to help shrink the tumor. BUT, carries severe side effect. Radiation therapy whereby high doses of radiation are directed at the cancer cells, to specifically shrink the tumor. But, also, the side effects of this method are very severe. Hormone therapy: changes the effect of the hormones or interferes with the body’s ability to make the hormone.

Stem cell transplant is a costly procedure whereby red blood cells or white blood cells are removed from the body, strengthen in labs, and then placed back into the body. This is done for blood-related cancer. Immunotherapy consists of a series of alternative therapies and treatments to boost the immune system and encourage the fight against cancerous cells. Surgery: is seen as both a preventive and a treatment therapy option, if possible. It includes removing small tumors to prevent the spread or complete removal of tumors. Follow-ups are crucial. Is cancer a painful death? Some do not have pain. If the person does have pain, it can be well-controlled with medication and the person is always kept comfortable.

What can you do to prevent or take care of yourself?

Know your family history. Genetics is important. Get regular check-ups or screening. Stop smoking and do not do drugs. Quit or limit alcohol consumption. Drink in moderate amounts. E.g. 1 glass a day Get regular Exercise. 30 minutes a day for 5 days, 2 rest days are important. To maintain your weight. Eat a balanced diet. Maintaining your weight or losing weight in small amounts is preferred and avoid fast foods. Avoid toxic chemicals. Vaccinate: against flu and Hep.

Breast Care

All women should check their breasts for lumps, abnormal thickness, or any other changes on a monthly basis for early detection. You know your breasts best! And it should be easy to spot changes. It is advised for females to check their breasts once a week, especially after their period. Check both breasts during bath time, or after your bath time, lying down or in front of a mirror to create a routine.

Breast examination

  • Place your left arm behind your head and place your hand behind your head.
  • Press firmly with your right-hand fingers on your left breast.
  • Use the pads of your fingers and move them in a circular motion, clockwise over your whole breast.
  • And make sure to check the armpits as well.
  • Feel for lumps, thickness redness, skin changes, nipple abnormalities, or anything unusual to you.
  • Rotate…check your right breast now, the same way.
  • At the end of each examination, gently squeeze the nipple to check for discharge.

After a physical examination, check the breasts in the mirror. Stand with your hands on your hips, then your hands in the air. Look for the differences in the size, shape, colour, and signs of swelling. Also, check under the armpit. If anything is unusual, go see a doctor. If the doctor finds anything, you will be sent for mammography. This is the low dose x-ray used to screen for cancer.

Advice for better breast care?

Do the Breast examination regularly! Wear a bra that fits the size of your breast properly! Get the correct size, correct cup, proper support structure. Make sure it’s well fitted to avoid chaffing your breasts. If you planning to be home the whole day, wear a soft or sports bra as opposed to going bra-less to avoid droopy breasts. Try to sleep without a bra to allow your breast to breathe. If you decide to wear a bra at night for comfort reasons, choose a lightweight bra, without an underwire.

Done by Lurika Fisher