Everyday in the newspaper or on the TV we read about new advances in medicine such as sophisticated scans to see inside our bodies or about new medicines to cure diseases. As a cancer specialist I am at the leading edge of new tests and treatments. While the majority of the patients in my practice are adults over the age of 50 with all-too-common cancers like breast cancer, lung cancer, or colon cancer, with these new tests and improved awareness of cancer screening, I am noticing an increase in young adults with cancer. In fact, there is a definite increase in cancer in young adults and this is often overlooked in much of general or family medicine.
More importantly, there are many important strategies to help prevent cancer (think never smoke cigarettes!) and one of the most important is education and awareness. Being smart about nutrition (what you eat) and exercise (what you do) is critical to preventing not only cancer but a host of other chronic common diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even Alzheimers disease.
Recent statistics point out that breast cancer is not only increasing (becoming more prevalent) in Asia but it is also preferentially affecting younger women. While eighty percent of breast cancer cases occur in women over the age of 50, recent reports show that, in Hong Kong, for example, the rate of breast cancer in the 30-39 age group has grown by an astounding 43%! Some of the increase may be due to more women getting mammograms (early detection) but experts report that this is not the only explanation since current guidelines recommend that women begin getting mammograms at age 40. Clearly there are additional risk factors at play, but it is likely not the same as the common western risk factors. In my own practice in Singapore I am definitely seeing more younger woman and with larger, more aggressive tumors, including women in their early 30’s. Fortunatley with US-style treatment most of these women will be cured and most (with pre-operative treatments) can save their breast.
FACT: Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide, accounting for 23% (1.38 million) of the total new cancer cases and 14% (458,400) of the total cancer deaths in 2008.
A more unusual and dangerous form of cancer is also increasing in younger asian women and that is lung cancer. It is plain and simple to the medical community; smoking and tobacco usage (including second-hand smoke) is the major cause. But there is also an increasing trend to diagnosis lung cancer in young asian women, in fact, women who are described as “never-smokers”. This type of lung cancer patient is increasing for reasons we do not understand. While it may be related to environmental pollution (asbestos or arsenic), western diets, second-hand smoke, or radon we just cannot be sure. It is becoming more common for people at risk, such as smokers, to undergo ‘CT-screening’, but this should only be determined by a cancer doctor. Increasingly there are reports that too many unsupervised ‘scans’ can expose otherwise healthy patients to unnecessary radiation. Screening does save lives but the best screening programs are supervised by qualified doctors with expertise in cancer prevention.
FACT: Lung cancer was the most commonly diagnosed cancer as well as the leading cause of cancer death in males in 2008 globally. Lung cancer accounts for 13% (1.6 million) of the total new cases and 18% (1.4 million) of the deaths in 2008.
One very bright area in cancer prevention is the new vaccine therapy to prevent cervical cancer. Cervical cancer affects older women more than younger but there is much you can do today, and perhaps only while you are young, to prevent cervical cancer. Specifically we now have vaccines (a simple series of 3 shots, like the hepatitis B vaccine) that can prevent cervical cancer. Most cervical cancer is caused by exposure to specific viruses. The virus in question is known as the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and very specific ‘types’ of HPV cause cervical cancer. The newest vaccines block the dangerous ‘types’ of HPV almost 100% and less common ‘types’ up to 70%. However one important fact remains, you should ideally get the vaccine (the shots) while you are between ages 15 and 26. A second version of the vaccine may help women up to age 40 or 45 as well. Again, cervical cancer screening and prevention should be done under the guidance of a knowledgeable cancer expert.
FACT: Cervical cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide, accounting for 9% (529,800) of the total new cancer cases and 8% (275,100) of the total cancer deaths among females in 2008.
Despite all of the frightening information and facts above, I remain optimistic for my patients. We are living in an amazing time with incredible growth in medicine, science, and technology. Even more important, my patients realize that this technology is still secondary to good common sense. My patients enjoy a tailored and personalized approach to both cancer treatment and prevention. By combining the best advice in nutrition, exercise, sleep, and even meditation, with state-of-the-art science, they achieve balance, wellness and longevity.
[Image source – Tips times]