Dr Dinesh Pendharkar
India’s cancer burden can be substantially reduced by educating people about the cancer-causing effects of tobacco, alcohol, and obesity, encouraging vaccination against cancer-causing viruses like HPV, and spreading awareness about spotting signs of cancer early.
Cancer currently afflicts about 45 lakh people in India. About 40-50% of cancer cases get diagnosed in the country in advanced stages when treatment is difficult and death rate is high. Even when alive, the patient is drained emotionally, physically, and financially due to the chronic nature of the disease and prolonged treatment.
Early detection of cancer is the key in reducing the disease burden, and that can be done by educating people about its early signs and symptoms. The probability of cancer rises with age. The 50+ population should especially be alert about symptoms of cancer and any unusual problem they notice about their health.
The four main causes of cancer in India are tobacco, alcohol, obesity, and viral infections including HPV (Human papillomavirus) and hepatitis. Head and neck cancer, also known as oral cavity cancer, comprises 40 per cent of all cancer cases in the country. The reason is addiction of people to chewing tobacco in various forms. The chemicals in tobacco lead to multiple types of cancer. By just eliminating tobacco from one’s life, one can reduce the chances of getting cancer by 40 per cent.
Obesity is another risk factor for cancer due to the metabolic changes it causes in the body. The calorie intake of people today is much higher than needed. The obesity epidemic is the result of eating junk food and unhealthy diet. Alcohol can also cause cancer of breast, colon, mouth, throat, and liver by triggering cell damage and hormonal changes. All types of alcoholic drinks can cause cancer, and even a small amount can increase the risk.
About 10 per cent of all cancers in the world are estimated to be caused by chronic viral infections. The HPV virus which causes cervical cancer is the most common, followed by hepatitis viruses. One should opt for vaccination to protect oneself from these virus-induced cancers.
Long-lasting ulcers in the mouth or tongue and swelling in the neck are early signs of mouth and neck cancer. A cough persisting for more than five days and unexplained difficulty in breathing are signs of lung cancer. Difficulty in swallowing food, accompanied by vomiting or nausea, is also a danger sign. Persistent acidity and pain in the abdomen can be early symptoms of stomach or gall bladder cancer.
Acidity, which does not respond to routine treatment, is a common symptom of cancer, more so in individuals over 50 years of age. Any difficulty in passing stool, severe diarrhea or constipation or both happening alternately, calls for an investigation by doctor. Bleeding is another sign of cancer. If there is bleeding from mouth or bleeding in stool, cough or urine, or if bleeding spots develop under the skin, one should see a doctor immediately. Other symptoms include long-standing fever that does not respond to medicines and unexplained weight loss. Any abnormal health symptom that lasts more than 5 to 7 days, coupled with age, is a danger signal for cancer.
India’s health system is not geared for early detection of cancer. Indian doctors have been fighting infections for so long, the possibility of cancer often doesn’t enter their mind on seeing the symptoms. Their first reaction is to start treating the patient for infection rather than checking for cancer. So, doctors too need better awareness about various cancer symptoms.
Dr Dinesh Pendharkar is Director, Sarvodaya Cancer Institute,
Sarvodaya Hospital, Sector 8, Faridabad, Haryana