Cancer — what you should know, what you need to know


By Margaret Brackett - Contributing Columnist



Cancer health is the subject of Newberry NOTES this week. Getting to the heart of the matter is Henry Well, executive director of the S.C. Cancer Alliance, who will discuss current trends in cancer disease and improving the treatment of those affected and surviving.

What is cancer?

Cancer is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control. Although there are many kinds of cancer, they all start because abnormal cells grow out of control. Untreated cancers can cause illness and death.

Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also grow into other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do.

Cells become cancer cells because of damage to DNA. DNA is in every cell and directs all its actions. In a normal cell, when DNA gets damaged the cell either repairs the damage or the cell dies. In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired, but the cell doesn’t die like it should.

Instead, this cell goes on making new cells that the body does not need. These new cells will all have the same damaged DNA as the first cell. People can inherit damaged DNA, but most DNA damage is caused by mistakes that happen while the normal cell is reproducing or by something in our environment. Sometimes the cause of the DNA damage is something obvious, such as radiation or exposure or tobacco use.”

What causes cancer?

One of the top causes is tobacco use. In the United States tobacco use is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths. Tobacco use accounts for at least 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 87 percent of lung cancer deaths.

Many think cigars or smokeless tobacco are safer options, but cigars contain many of the same carcinogens that are found in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products are a major source of cancer-causing nitrosamines and a known cause of human cancer.

Smokeless tobacco products increase the risk of developing cancer of the mouth and throat, esophagus, and pancreas. In addition, each year about 3,400 non-smoking adults die of lung cancer as a result of breathing secondhand smoke.

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. More than 2 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are found in this country each year.

Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, accounted for about 68,130 cases of skin cancer in 2010. Over-exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning bed are major risks factors for skin cancer.

Many of the risk factors are largely influenced by lifestyle. Tobacco use is the first thing in lifestyle choices and risks, but being overweight is also a major risk factor for cancer. An estimated 1 out of 3 cancers is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition, or physical inactivity. Excess body weight contributes to 14 percent to 20 percent of all cancer-related deaths.

Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. The evidence for such a link is generally stronger in men than in women.

Cancer is such a common disease that many families have at least a few members who have had cancer. Sometimes, certain types run in some families. Some risk factors may be inherited — breast, ovarian, prostrate, colon. It is stressed these are not always inherited.

Only about 5 percent to 10 percent of all cancers are inherited. Today, millions of people are living with cancer or have had cancer. Half of all men and one-third women in the United States will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

Cancer signs and symptoms

Unexplained weight loss, extreme fatigue, jaundice, changes in bowel habits, bladder function, sores that won’t heal, changes in a wart or mole, nagging cough or hoarseness, thickening or lump in breast or other part of body, difficulty swallowing. Remember having these do not mean you have cancer — many other things cause these symptoms too.

Prevention and decreasing risk

• If you smoke, stop.

• Attain and stay at a healthy weight.

• Be physically active on a regular basis.

• If you drink alcohol, limit your intake — two drinks per day for men and one for women.

• Avoid sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Use sunscreen, wear sunglasses with 99-100 percent UV absorption and cover up. Don’t use tanning beds.

• See your doctor regularly and get screenings at recommended intervals.

Cancer can start in the lungs, breast, colon or even in the blood. Cancers are alike in some ways, but different in the ways they grow and spread. Some cancers grow and spread fast. Others grow more slowly.

They also respond to treatment in different ways. Some types of cancer are best treated with surgery while others respond to drugs, chemotherapy. Often two treatments are used to get best results.

Here are some facts about South Carolina:

• Approximately 3,740 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 670 will die from the disease each year. Breast cancer occurs almost entirely in women, but men can be diagnosed.

• Approximately 170 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and approximately 65 die from the disease each year. Despite recent improvements, it remains an important problem for women in South Carolina.

• Approximately 3,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer and 480 die from the disease each year. Most men with prostate cancer are older than 50 years and do not die from the disease.

• Approximately 2,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer and approximately 800 die from the disease each year. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in both men and women. It is the most preventable, starting in the colon or rectum called a polyp which becomes cancer over time, and removing the polyp can prevent colorectal cancer.

• Approximately 3,780 people are diagnosed with lung cancer and 670 die from the disease each year. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. The most effective way to prevent lung cancer is tobacco control.

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By Margaret Brackett

Contributing Columnist

Margaret Brackett is from Newberry. Her columns appear weekly in The Newberry Observer.

Margaret Brackett is from Newberry. Her columns appear weekly in The Newberry Observer.

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