10 things you need to know about your risk of getting cancer and how to reduce it

PHOTOGRAPH: Kacso Sandor, 123rf.com

1 Some viruses can cause cancer   
You know that smoking (and passive smoke) and prolonged sun exposure put you at a higher risk of developing cancer. What’s less commonly known is that some viral infections can raise your risk as well. The human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cervical cancer, while the hepatitis B virus (HBV) increases the risk of liver cancer – both viruses can be passed from person to person through blood or sex. The good news is, you can safeguard yourself with vaccinations against HPV and HBV. 

 

2 Sugar has a role  
There is no evidence linking sugar with cancer, says Dr Patricia Kho, senior consultant of medical oncology at Parkway Cancer Centre. However, eating too much of it can cause you to gain weight or become obese, which in turn increases your cancer risk. So, it is important to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. 

 

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3 Go easy on alcohol
The less alcohol – be it beer, wine or spirits – you imbibe, the better you are for it. Fahma Sunarja, senior dietitian at Parkway Cancer Centre, points out that alcohol has been linked to increased risk for mouth and throat, oesophagal, liver, colorectal, breast and stomach cancers. Men should not have more than two drinks a day, and women should just have one. 

 

4 Most cancers are not inherited
Only five to 10 per cent of cancer cases are caused by abnormal genes that run in the family. Other cancer-causing factors include an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, viruses, and excessive exposure to sunlight and tobacco smoke. 

 

5 40 per cent of cancers are preventable 
Fahma points out that the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research have these recommendations to lower the risk of developing cancer: Stay active, eat more fruits and vegetables, cut down on red meat and sugary drinks, and use more fresh ingredients in cooking, and eat less processed, salted and smoked food like ham, bacon, sausages. Added preservatives like nitrates or the smoking, salting and drying process may produce carcinogenic compounds in food.

 

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6 Not all tumours are cancerous
Tumours are formed when cells in the body do not die when they should or when there is an abnormal growth of cells. However, they can be malignant or benign. Malignant tumours are cancerous as they can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Benign tumours, on the other hand, usually do not recur if they are removed, as their cells do not the potential to invade or spread. 

 

7 Never ignore these symptoms  
For most cancers, pain is not an initial symptom. In fact, symptoms only appear when the cancer is in the advanced stages, says Dr Kho. However, you can watch out for these warning signs; if they persist, see a doctor immediately. 
•    Lumps in the breast or on other body parts. 
•    Hoarseness or a persistent cough that is not due to a viral illness. 
•    Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing. 
•    Unexpected or rapid, significant weight loss. 
•    Sores that do not heal.
•    Unusual bleeding or vaginal discharge, or blood in phlegm, urine or stool.
•    Chronic constipation, diarrhoea, or a change in the pattern or size of stool; pain with urination, or more frequent or less frequent urination. 
•    Changes in the colour, shape and size of a wart or mole. 

 

8 Don’t skip screenings
You’ve heard this often enough, but it is important. Cancers that are detected when they are still small are easier to treat. And there’s a very good chance of a cure if the cancer hasn’t spread, says Dr Kho. So opt for annual medical assessments, even if you don’t show any symptoms, she advises. Common screenings include mammography for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer and a pap smear for cervical cancer. 

 

 

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9 Breast cancer is the biggest killer

From 2010 to 2014, of the 61,522 cancer cases were diagnosed in Singapore, women made half, or 31,743, of them. Breast cancer was the most common and most fatal, causing 2,049 deaths. Here are the five most common cancers among women during that period. 

Breast cancer: 29.2%
Colorectal cancer: 13.3%
Lung cancer: 7.6%
Uterine cancer: 6.6 %
Ovarian cancer: 5.5%
Other cancers: 37.8%
Source: Annual Registry Report Trends in Cancer Incidence in Singapore 2010-2014, by the Singapore Cancer Registry

 

10 Alternative therapies may help

Cancer cannot be treated with alternative therapies but they can complement your treatment. Dr Kho advises patients to inform their oncologist of any supplementary treatment or medication they are considering, to ensure there are no side effects and that the effectiveness of the cancer treatment is not reduced.