There is probably no other disease more frightening in name than the one that starts with the big C. This is because we know that cancer kills and does it quickly and painfully but not many of us know exactly what it is or how it affects us.
What is cancer and how does it even begin to cause such havoc in the body??
The body is populated by trillions of cells, experts estimate human to have 5 trillion cells at birth. Each cell is pre-programmed to live, reproduce and die according to a precise schedule. When there is no need, the cells stop reproducing.
Occasionally, a cell experiences some change or mutation to its DNA, the substance that directs a cell's activities. As a result, it refuses to die or stop reproducing. Normally, everyone experiences abnormal cell growths at different points in their life but thanks to a healthy immune system, these abnormalities are readily detected and removed by the body's police and military forces (our immune cells).
But in some instances. for example, when our immune soldiers are too weak, the growth can become an open revolt. This dissident cells are clones copies of itself and its clan of troublemakers hop into the blood stream, travelling to other organs and tissues, further disrupting the natural organs of the body.
In simple terms, cancer represents a situation where mutated cells grow out of control into chaos-causing tumors. Tumors can be either malignant or benign. When seen under microscope, malignant cells are usually misshapen, non-uniform structures, representing the very essence of disorder.
How does one dies of cancer?
The cancer process literally starves the cancer patient by using up the body's energy reserves. When a cancer grows, it steals nutrients from the affected organ, release toxins into that organ and effectively shut the organ down.
Cancer can also cut off blood supply to a vital organ. It can impair blood from clotting, causing some patients to die from uncontrolled blood loss. As cancer suppresses the immune system, a patient may die of a bacterial or viral infection. In some cases, toxic effects of cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can also suppress the immune system.
What causes cancer?
1. An Unhealthy Diet
The American Cancer Society suggest that of the 50,000 cancer death that occurs each year in the US, at least one third could have been prevented through a healthy diet and regular physical activities. Experts label animal proteins and saturated fats as prime suspects. These substances are linked to cancers of colon, pancreas, kidney, breast, uterus and prostate.
Red meat is a confirmed cancer causer. Studies in the US show that women who ate a lot of red meat had double the rate of breast cancer compared to women who ate less meat. And men who regularly ate red meat were at nearly 3 times the risk of advanced prostate cancer compared to their plant food-loving counterparts.
Singaporeans' love for red meat gives them 2.2 times more risk for colon and rectal cancers. Apart from being high in fat, red meat is also high in animal protein. Such protein-rich diets tend to leach calcium from the bones. This not only causes osteoporosis later in life but is also detrimental for those with bone cancer, which depletes calcium reserves in the body.
Cancer is not only a result of what we eat, but also what we do not eat. Nutritional deficiencies brought about by buried and unbalanced meals can drastically undermine the immune system. Plant food is of particular value in the battle against cancer. The Singapore Chinese Health Study, a landmark, 10-year study of over 60,000 Chinese Singaporeans showed that eating green, leafy and cruciferous vegetables like kai lan, chye sim, broccoli and cauliflower may reduce risk of colon cancer and yellowish orange fruits like papaya and tangerines may reduce risk of lung cancer.
2. Obesity and Lack of Exercise
The American Cancer Society estimates that at least 16% of all cancer deaths are linked to excess weight. It is thought that fat's ability to raise insulin and protein levels may in turn lead to the uncontrolled growth of certain cells. The worse culprits are said to be fat cells that build up in the abdomen.
Obese postmenopausal women have 50% more risk for breast cancer than normal-weight women. An overweight woman has twice the risk of getting endometrial cancer compared to a normal-weight women. This risk increases to 3.5 to 5 fold if she is obese. An obese person is 50% more likely to develop colorectal cancer and 3 times more likely to get kidney cancer and a type of esophageal cancer than a normal weight person.
3. Tobacco Smoke & Alcohol Abuse
Smoking is said to be cause at least one third of all cancer deaths in the US and 87% of lung cancer deaths. Smokers have the highest risk of developing lung cancer, which claims 157,000 lives a year in the US alone. Secondary smoke, the smoke inhaled by someone in the presence of a smoker, accounts for about 3000 lung cancer deaths among non-smoking Americans. A non-smoking spouse or child living with a smoker is said to face double the risk dying from lung cancer.
Tobacco smoke's suppressing effect on our cancer-repelling natural killer (NK) cells makes smokers vulnerable to not only lung cancer but also other cancers. Doctors have found that women with breast cancer who smoke have double the risk of getting secondary tumors in the lungs. Women are also more likely to survive breast cancer if they do not smoke.
The National Cancer Institute cites alcohol consumption as another key risk factor. The risk of cancer also rose with the number of drinks consumed. Experts think that alcohol, including beer, elevates risk of cancer by suppressing our NK cells. Other alcohol-linked cancers include cancers of the pharynx, larynx, esophagus, pancreas, liver and cancer of the head and neck.
Cancer-causing drugs include immunosuppressive drugs like antibiotics and steroids and treatments like hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Antibiotics can kill both good and bad bacteria leading to the rise of pathogenic bacteria in the digestive system. Antibiotics can also lead to intolerances such as allergies which in turn put the immune system at further turmoil. Lowered immune function can trigger a cancer-causing environment in the body.
Steroids, meanwhile work by weakening immune responses - studies have shown that between 6% and 8% of kidney transplant patients develop cancer as a complication of using immunosuppressive drugs like steroids.
A National Institute of Health Women's Health Initiative report in July 2002 revealed that the previously highly-lauded HRT actually upped risk of heart disease and stroke in the postmenopausal women and also caused a 26% increase in breast cancer incidence.
5. Excessive Stress
As early as 2000 years ago, a Greek physician called Galen noted that women who were melancholic were more likely to develop cancer.
Chronic stress directly affects our health by signaling the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids. Experts say that cancer-causing processes are accelerated in the presence of such hormones.
Stress also causes the release of cortisol and adrenalin, hormones that can decrease the number of immune cells in the body.
According to research, about 15% of cancer deaths in the world could be linked to harmful microorganisms, especially viruses. Up to 80% of liver cancers may be caused by the hepatitis virus while the sexually-transmitted papilloma virus is said to cause almost 80% of genital anal cancers. The Epstein-Barr virus is linked to cancers of the upper pharynx, Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's cancers as well as certain stomach cancers.