[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]
February the 4th marks World Cancer Day, a global event organised by the Union for International Cancer Control. The day aims to “take a positive and proactive approach to the fight against cancer, highlighting that solutions do exist across the continuum of cancer, and that they are within our reach.”
Focus is on four key areas: choosing healthy lives, detecting cancer early, achieving treatment for patients worldwide – not just in the west – and maximising the quality of life for patients, even those whose illness is terminal. Events have been organised globally to raise awareness, fund research, and spark conversations around a topic we hear a lot about but often seem to ignore.
Why do we need a global awareness day? Cancer is the “big bad” of today’s society. Hardly a day goes by without some research being pushed as the “next big breakthrough”; drink red wine, don’t eat meat, eat fish, eat more tomatoes, less fat, more olive oil, less alcohol, more alcohol, more exercise, less exercise, cosmetics, chemicals, fresh air, polluted air, soft drinks, fizzy drinks, anything you can imagine. Horror stories leap from every page of the papers; we’re obsessed with finding an edge against the illness.
So what’s happening at Herts for World Cancer Day?
While there aren’t any special events happening, there are a few things you can do to get involved.
- Set up an event of your own.
Obvious, we know, but you can run an event yourself and start making a difference. Try a cake sale, a sponsored event, other fundraising activities, or just awareness raising – hand out some leaflets or posters. There are hundreds of cancer charities out there and they all need your help, so do a quick google and get cracking!
- Donate some money or time.
Again, it seems obvious, but if you want to make a difference you can go and volunteer or donate to a cancer charity. There are plenty of them out there! And if you want to get something out of it, go and buy something from a charity shop. You’ll get some awesome stuff for a tenth of the price of your high street stores, plus you’re helping fund research.
- Keep an eye on the SU pages.
There might not be anything special happening now, but there are always new events upcoming. Our very own Hertfordshire Marrow group (the student division of the Anthony Nolan blood cancer charity [Disclaimer: the author is on the committee]) run regular events in aid of blood cancer research and also bone marrow donor recruitment drives. That means that not only can you give money, you can sign yourself up to donate cells from your bone marrow to a cancer patient in desperate need of a transplant.
But have you ever thought about how people in low income countries, without our sophisticated healthcare infrastructure, cope with cancer? Chances are, you think of cancer as a rich person’s illness; there’s so much else to die of, after all. Malaria, Ebola, starvation, malnutrition, war, corrupt governments, vigilantism, violent crime, poor sanitation, lack of water and extreme poverty occupy our minds when we think of poor countries such as CAR, Sierra Leone, and the Congo. But cancer doesn’t discriminate; its very nature means that it is a threat to everyone. And, although many people in the UK do die of their cancers, the survival rate is much higher due to our NHS and medical services. Many people in poorer countries don’t even know how to recognise cancer, let alone have the money to treat it.
8.2 million people per year die from cancer worldwide. That figure includes 4 million people said to die prematurely – ie, under the age of 69. Huge numbers of those deaths are preventable even with the cancer care that we have now – if people worldwide were treated as they are in Britain, millions of lives could be saved. Further advances in research, which require funding that simply isn’t provided at present, could save millions more.
But before we get to that, let’s bust a few myths; what, actually, is cancer?
Chances are you have a pretty good idea, or think you do. But let’s have a look at some of the mistakes people make.
- You can catch cancer.
Nope! Cancer is an NCD – a non-communicable disease. As we’ll explain below, cancer arises from mutations in cell DNA – it’s generated inside your body. There’s nothing to fear from hanging around cancer sufferers.
- Cancer can be cured.
This is a tough one, but unfortunately, there is no cure for cancer, and there never will be. Cancer isn’t a single, unified disease; there are hundreds of different cancers, with different pathologies (ways that they develop and are treated). A drug that treats throat cancer might not do anything at all to ovarian cancer, and there is no magic bullet. Further, you can’t eradicate cancer. As we mentioned in 1), cancer happens by itself in your cells, and it will continue to appear no matter what drugs you take. Maybe someday we can treat it before it kills the patient, but we can’t stop it from happening completely.
- You can avoid cancer by eating/not eating some foods/doing exercise/drinking herbal tea/buying supplements/dancing around your garden on the full moon wearing a onesie and waving a dried fish.
Sorry again. Look, there’s a lot of research into what does and doesn’t cause cancer, and there are a few things – like smoking – that we can say we’re pretty sure make it more likely that you’ll develop it. But most of the research you see in newspapers is limited in its application, and rigorous experiments have yet to be conducted for most potential carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals). That said, there are a few things – again, like smoking, which delivers carcinogens right into your lungs – which will definitely up your chances. NHS England’s website (www.nhs.uk/livewell/preventing-cancer) says that if you want to lower your risk of cancer, you should cut down or give up smoking, monitor your alcohol intake, try and lead a healthy lifestyle (keep fit and eat healthy), make sure to protect your skin in the sun (UV radiation doesn’t just give you sunburn, it can give you skin cancer), and make sure to regularly check yourself for signs of cancer.
- Cancer is rare.
Sorry again – it’s more bad news. According to the NHS, one in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime. That means that even if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly know someone who does. It’s true that many types of cancer are rare, but in 2011, 331,500 people in Britain were diagnosed with some type of cancer. So check yourself, and always go to a doctor if you think something’s wrong.
So what actually is cancer?
Basically, cancer is a programming error in your body’s cells. As you might remember from your GCSEs – stay with me, the science isn’t too complicated – your cells contain DNA, which is like an “instruction manual” for growing a human. That set of instructions is copied line-for-line when your cells reproduce, which happens all the time as part of growth and repair. Your body’s cells have a limited life, so they have to reproduce to keep you going, or you’d wither and die. The cell copies the DNA, makes a new version of all the other things inside the cell – stuctures called organelles – and then splits in two, with the new cell a perfect copy of the old one. Except that sometimes, which the DNA is being copied, mistakes can occur – typos, if you like. But it’s a bit more serious than typing “teh” instead of “the” – mutations like this can affect the way that the new cells function. Imagine someone giving you instructions via text. They send you the message “Buy me a cat.” Bemused, but obedient, you go out and get them a furry friend – only to find that what they meant was “Buy me a hat”. You’re both several pounds out of pocket, plus now you have a cat to dispose of.
Mutations in your body’s instruction manual can do a lot of things, some of them good, some of them bad, and most of them so insignificant you won’t even notice. But when the mistakes happen in the bit of your DNA telling your cells how to reproduce, you end up with a cell that has all the instructions for making new cells – and nothing to tell it to stop. That’s what a cancer tumour is – a ball of cells that keep on dividing and reproducing, without the body’s control mechanisms to keep them where they’re meant to be. Plus, cancer cells are immortal – they don’t have the lines of code that tell them how to die.
So cancer is a group of cells that haven’t been programmed to die like they should, and which are busy making new cells just like them. Mutations like this arise spontaneously, but some chemicals, genetic traits, and other factors make it more likely.
In that case, how do you know if you have cancer?
An exhaustive list of symptoms for all types would take all day, and nobody would bother to read it. The four most common cancers in the UK are breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancer, which all have different symptoms, and you should always see a doctor if concerned. But here are some of the most general signs:
Bleeding is a common sign of cancer. You should see a GP if blood starts oozing from anywhere it shouldn’t, including:
- When you cough
- When you vomit
- In your urine or faeces
- From your anus
- If you’re a girl, bleeding in between periods
Especially in your breasts – men too! But any lump on your body that rapidly increases in size is a cause for concern.
- Coughing, chest pain, or breathlessness
NHS England advises you to see your GP if you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks. Shortness of breath or chest pain, meanwhile, can signify a huge range of extremely serious illnesses, including cancer (but don’t worry – it’s probably nothing. See a GP anyway though, just to be sure).
- Changes in your bowel habits
Are you needing to go to the toilet more or less often? Changes in the kinds of waste you produce? See a doctor. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but it could be a sign of bowel cancer.
Most people have moles, and they’re perfectly harmless. The time to see your doctor is if you have a mole which is:
- Asymmetrical or irregularly shaped
- Has jagged edges
- Is more than one colour
- Is bigger than 7mm in diameter
- Is itchy, crusty or bleeding (but really, that one’s obviously something to show a doctor)
Moles like this can be a sign of melanoma, or skin cancer.
- Unexplained weight loss
Sure, some of us want to lose a few pounds. But if you suddenly start losing weight without any obvious cause, it can be a symptom of cancer and a number of other problems.
Remember, there is nothing too trivial to bother your doctor with. Even if you’re embarrassed, or you think it’s silly, you should get it checked out. It’s probably nothing – most of these symptoms have other explanations – but you don’t want to miss something vital.
The most important thing to remember is to learn what is normal for you, and check yourself regularly. If you’re not sure what to look for, take a look online. Breast cancer awareness charities like www.nationalbreastcancer.org can tell you how to perform breast self exams, while sites like testicularcancer.org have info on testicular self examination (testicular cancer is the most common cancer among men aged 15-35).