Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Are you at risk of cancer?

Are you at risk of cancer?
Mon, Jun 15, 2009
The Star/Asia News Network

By: Datuk Dr Adel Zaatar

THIS is the first of a two-part article that outlines the important role of understanding the risk factors involved in developing cancer in general and the role of cancer prevention, public education, early detection and screening programmes for cancer in particular.

Cancer has been a taboo word for many years. To many people, the word cancer often causes concern and fear. A diagnosis of cancer is often thought to be a death sentence. Yet, many people are cured of cancer while many others continue to lead very full, active lives even if they are not completely cured.

Cancer is not a single disease.

It is a word that covers over one hundred different types of malignant diseases, which have different causes and are treated in different ways.

Cancer is a genetic disease. The cause of cancer is complex and involves damage to our genetic make-up. If, for any reason, some of our genes rage out of control, cancer may develop. The first rule for cancer cells is that they follow no rules. Cancer begins when a single cell in the body mutates, is unable to grow in the normal way and starts to overgrow and spread.

Who gets cancer?

The answer is anyone. Cancer knows no social, economic or educational boundaries. It affects the young and the old, the rich and the poor, male and female alike. It is known that the incidence of cancer rises with age. Most cases of cancer affects adults in mid-life or older.

What are the risk factors?

Doctors often cannot explain why one person develops cancer and another person does not. However, certain risk factors increase the chance that a person will develop cancer.

The concept of risk appears often in articles about cancer. In general terms, risk is the probability that an event will occur. In terms of cancer, risk refers to the likelihood that a person will develop cancer, experience a recurrence of their cancer after treatment or benefit from treatment of their disease.

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example exposing skin continuously to strong sunlight and ultraviolet radiation is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for cancers of the lung, mouth and throat.

But risk factors do not tell us everything. Having a risk factor or even more than one risk factor does not mean that you will get the disease. For example, most women who have one or more breast cancer risk factors never develop breast cancer while many women with breast cancer have no apparent risk factors - other than being female and growing older. Even when a woman with risk factors develops breast cancer, it is hard to know just how much these factors may have contributed to her cancer. Although risk factors can influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer.

There are different kinds of risk factors. Some factors, like a person's age or race, cannot be changed. Other risk factors are linked to cancer-causing factors in the environment, while others are related to personal habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol and diet. Some factors influence risk more than others and your risk of developing cancer can change over time due to factors such as ageing or personal lifestyle choices.

Understanding your risk for developing cancer is important. People who have close relatives with cancer or close relatives who have died from cancer, especially at a younger age, may be at higher risk of developing cancer. For example, a woman whose mother or sister had breast cancer is twice as likely to develop breast cancer than an otherwise similar woman who does not have the same family history.

Examples of risk factors

The risk factors for developing cancer are both external and internal and several are personal lifestyle choices. Some examples of risk factors and personal lifestyle choices are:

Growing older

- Tobacco consumption

- Continuous exposure to sunlight

- Ultraviolet radiation

- Certain chemicals

- Some viruses and bacteria

- Family history of cancer

- Heavy alcohol consumption

- Imbalanced diet

- Lack of physical activity

- Being overweight

The risk factors you cannot change include:


Simply being a woman is the main risk factor for developing breast cancer. The main reason is that a woman's breast cells are constantly exposed to the growth-promoting effects of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.


It is known that the risk of developing cancer increases as you get older. Most cancers occur in people over the age of 60 years. But people of all ages including children can get cancer.

Family history

Some cancers tend to run in families, so knowing what disease you are at risk of is a big plus. Self-examinations and annual cancer screening examinations are recommended. We know that early detection can pick-up cancer at its earliest most treatable stage.

Studies have shown that cancer is related to our genetic profile, which cannot be changed. Most cancers develop because of mutations in our genes. A normal cell may become cancerous after a series of gene changes occur. Tobacco use, certain viruses or other factors in the environment may cause changes in certain cells in the body to become cancer. In the second part of our article next month, we will look at lifestyle-related cancer risks and the prevention strategies. Stay tuned. -The Star/ANN

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