Cancer in Our Society – an advice from Dr Lungile Sitole the scientist.

We need to remember that diseases are not punishment for any doings but rather a result of living in a broken and the world full of challenges where nobody is immune to diseases such as cancer. 

What is cancer?

The incident rate of cancer is growing significantly in South Africa. Breast cancer is the leading cancer amongst women in South Africa but cervical cancer is the most lethal. For men, prostate cancer is top of the list but lung cancer has the highest mortality rate. It is projected that by the year 2030 more than 70% of the global cancer problem will be in low and middle-income countries such as South Africa. With limited resources and infrastructure, by 2030 our South African economy could be crippled by cancer. 

Cancer is a name given to a collection of related diseases and is defined as the uncontrolled proliferation of somatic cells that occurs because of accumulated gene mutations which causes the deregulation of cell proliferation and the failure of cell death.

 In simple terms, cancer happens when abnormal cells keep growing and spreading very fast. Under normal body conditions, the cells in our bodies grow and divide in order to carry out different biological functions. Over time, once the cells have performed all their functions, they are programmed to stop growing and ultimately die. This process is important because the body has to remove unwanted, aged or damaged cells, in order to replace them with new ones that can carry out all the necessary functions and maintain cellular balance in the human body. 

In a cancerous environment, the cells will grow and divide both continuously and uncontrollably and will not die when they are supposed to. These abnormal cells will then form a group or bundle up together like a ball of wool, to form a tumour (also referred to as a “lump”). As this tumour or lump grows bigger and bigger it begins to destroy the normal cells surrounding it and causes damage to the healthy tissues in the body. There are two types of tumours. A non-cancerous tumour (benign) and a cancerous tumour (malignant). Non-cancerous tumours are formed in one area of the body and cannot move or grow in surrounding areas. A cancerous tumour is one that can grow or invade surrounding areas and/or spread to distant parts of the body.  

Most cancerous cells have the ability to break away from a tumour at the primary site (the part of the body where the cancer originated) and travel to different areas of the body where they keep growing and form new tumours/lumps. This is how cancer spreads across the body. 

How does cancer start? 

Cancer starts in the cells. The human body is made up of billions and billions of cells. Different types of cells carry out different functions but cells are basically all very similar. Like a car, cells have an engine (known as a nucleus) which serves as a control centre. Within this nucleus there are thousands of genes. Genes are a units that carry information (i.e. DNA) that is passed on from one generation to another. Genes carry the information that determines which characteristics or features are passed down from two parents to their child. For instance, if both your parents have a big nose, you might inherit the features of a big nose from them. Or if your mother has big eyes, you might have big eyes too because you inherited the feature for big eyes. So basically, this inheritance is transferred from your mother to you via genes. 

Inside the nucleus, the genes will instruct each cell on how to grow, divide, function and die. Under normal conditions, our cells will follow these instructions and we will remain healthy. But when there is a change or error in the DNA that is within a gene, the gene will be altered or damaged (mutated). Once this happens, the genes cannot send the correct instructions to the cells. If the cells do not receive correct instructions or there is a mistake somewhere in the DNA, the cells can behave abnormally and begin to grow uncontrollably while avoiding programmed death and ultimately forming tumours that could potentially lead to cancer (depending on whether it is a benign or malignant tumour). 

What Causes Cancer?

What exactly causes cancer? This is an everyday question. We often also hear people ask, is it contagious? If I have it will my husband and/or children have it? Did it come from my grandparents? 

Cancer is a genetic disease and is caused by accumulated damage or changes to genes in a particular cell, during a person’s life, which happens overtime. Cancer cells are usually formed after chains and chains of genetic changes take place. It can take a number of years before the genetic changes actually form abnormal cells that lead to cancer. Meaning, cancer does not happen overnight. This explains why cancer is more common in older people. These genetic changes can be inherited from our parents, they can develop as we get older and older or develop if we a constantly exposed to chemicals or any other substances, like cigarettes, alcohol and ultraviolet rays from the sun, that damage our genetic material. Lifestyle choices (poor diet and exercise) and certain medical conditions (viruses and other infections) can also contribute significantly to the development of genetic changes that can lead to abnormal cells which could ultimately form cancer. It is important to understand that cancer is absolutely NOT contagious. 

Importance of early detection

There is nothing as important as early detection in any disease or illness, simply because the earlier you detect the easier it is to treat. The same applies for cancer. It can take up to 10 years for a cancerous tumour to grow before it is detected and sometimes the growth can be very slow (i.e. prostate cancer). Unfortunately, if we do not get ourselves constantly checked for early signs of abnormal cells that have the potential to grow into cancerous tumours, we might find ourselves diagnosed with cancer at an advanced stage (where the cancer has spread to other parts of the body). Cancer that is not detected early can grow bigger and bigger and spread to different parts of the body thus making it very hard to treat and lowering the chances of survival. If cancer is detected or diagnosed early (before it spreads to other parts of the body), the chances of successful treatment are much higher and it can stay undetected for more than 5 years after treatment. 

For instance, 9/10 of women diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer at its earliest stage are said to survive the disease for at least 5 years after diagnosis compared to about 1/10 that are diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease. It is therefore important that both men and women continuously screen for cancer. It is also important that we, the younger generation, constantly encourage our parents and grandparents to be aware of any changes that may occur in their bodies. Whether it’s a small soft lump on the shoulder or sudden weight-loss and unusual tiredness it’s important to be vigilant. Remember, medicine has improved significantly from what it used to be. Doctors today know more about how to find and treat different cancers. So Masione, let us encourage each other to take care of our health. Early detection saves lives

How to support a loved one during cancer?

Support, compassion, unconditional love and prayer. Living with cancer is not easy. Being diagnosed with cancer can be very hard to accept. One is likely to feel a rollercoaster of emotions before and after treatment. At times people with cancer feel like Naaman the leper (Luke 5:12-13, 5:29-31, 2Kings 7:3-5), they feel isolated, alone and unwanted. This is the time that they need their loved ones the most. It is our responsibility to be empathetic, kind-hearted, and caring and most importantly loving.

Dr Lungile Sitole (PhD) is  a Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg focusing on HIV/Aids and Cancer. 

 

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