In Canada, an estimated 38 percent of women and 44 percent of men are at risk for developing cancer at some point in their life. On average, 2,865 Canadians per week are diagnosed with cancer and 1,337 die as a result of the disease. To date, lung cancer remains the deadliest for both men and women, followed closely by colorectal cancer.
The recrudescence of cases can be explained in part by the aging of the population and by our improved life expectancy, as cancer mainly strikes the elderly: 44 percent of new cases and 60 percent of cancer deaths occur in those aged 70 and over.
An overview of cancer
Cancer is not a new phenomenon; it has been around since life first appeared, in insects and plants just like in humans. This disease is the result of a complex process that initially takes place at the cellular level. The human body is made up of 50,000 to 100,000 billion cells that reproduce, multiply, live, die and interact in an infinitely complex order.
Cells sometimes grow in an abnormal manner. Thanks to control systems, our body usually manages to detect and eradicate cells that are growing abnormally. Cancer develops when this initial locus (or source) of cells is not restrained by the body’s control systems.
Cancer cells are characterized by the fact that they reproduce in a disorderly fashion, and more rapidly than normal cells. They can also invade neighbouring cells or circulate in the blood in order to invade other, more distant tissue. The latter is what differentiates a benign tumour from a cancerous one. In the case of a benign tumour, there is also abnormal cell growth, but the cells can’t spread through the body.
The primary locus is the site where the first abnormal cell growth appears. When cells from the primary tumour reach the blood vessels, they can scatter throughout the body. Most of these “travelling” cells are destroyed, but occasionally some of them can infiltrate another organ, where they can cause a metastasis, which is another word for secondary tumour.
Metastases can develop practically anywhere in the body. Cancer is deemed generalized when there are multiple metastases.
Cancer is named after the original site where the abnormal cell cluster developed. For example, a case of cancer that begins in breast tissue but that spreads abnormal cells to the bones is called breast cancer with bone metastases. There are over 200 different types of cancer, some much more common than others. In Canada, lung, breast, colon and prostate cancer account for more than half of all diagnosed cases.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, you can reduce your risk of developing cancer by following seven rules:
1) Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke. Tobacco is linked to an estimated 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths.
2) Eat healthy. Many studies have shown that eating a lot of fruit and vegetables, along with foods high in fibre and low in fat, reduces the risk of cancer.
3) Be physically active. Studies suggest that regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce the risk of certain cancers.
4) Protect your skin from the sun. Using proper sunscreen is the best way to minimize the risk of suffering from skin cancer.
5) Undergo screening tests whenever recommended by your physician. Early screening makes it possible to detect cancer before there are even clinical signs of anything abnormal. It is estimated that a single year gained in diagnosing cancer takes the recovery rate from 50 to 80 percent.
6) Promptly see a healthcare professional if you notice any change in your usual state of health. Examples of signs that are worth a consultation include a wound that won’t heal, a persistent cough, or a change in your stools.
7) Handle carcinogenic products with care. Certain household products can be carcinogenic, including domestic pesticides and certain chemicals. Precautions should be taken when using and storing these products in order to reduce the risk of contamination.
Even following these rules religiously may not fully prevent cancer from developing. However, adopting a healthy lifestyle and taking responsible measures – such as systematic screenings and wearing sunscreen – are simple precautions that, when applied on a larger scale, can make a significant difference in the fight against cancer.
A treatment overview
When a cancer diagnosis is made, there are usually various possible treatments, namely surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The treatment goal may be to heal the person or, when this is not possible, to slow the disease progression or maximize quality of life.
Surgery to remove the tumour is the main treatment approach. This is not always a viable option, however. When cancer is detected too late and has already developed metastases, or if it has invaded adjoining tissue or the lymphatic system, it is often too advanced to be operable.
Chemotherapy involves using drugs to destroy cancer cells and stop them from multiplying. Once they are in the body, most drugs act in a non-specific way by preferentially attacking cells that reproduce quickly. This is how they manage to destroy a cancer tumour, which is made up of rapidly dividing cells. This mechanism of action also explains the adverse effects of chemotherapy: the drug attacks all cells that divide rapidly, and those include hair follicles and white blood cells.
Radiation therapy plays a role similar to chemotherapy. The treatment involves directing ionizing rays onto the zone where cancer has developed. This stops the cancer cells from growing and multiplying. While radiation therapy can also affect healthy tissue, a well-calculated dose of radiation makes it possible to limit adverse effects. It is often used in addition to chemotherapy, with the two treatments working in a complementary fashion. Radiation therapy can also be used prior to surgery to shrink the tumour and make it easier to operate.
Living with cancer
A cancer diagnosis – whether it is for a family member, a friend or yourself – is a real blow. It can be daunting to face the violence of the diagnosis and adapt your everyday reality to take the disease into account. Cancer is frightening, so you must face a lot of questions, uncertainties and worries.
Don’t hesitate to discuss your questions and fears with the members of your healthcare team – they are there to answer your questions and inform you throughout the treatment. If things seem confusing, don’t hesitate to consult them in order to find out more, be reassured or avoid going through the process in a state of distress.
Increasingly nowadays, the moral and psychological suffering that comes with a cancer diagnosis is being addressed with as much attention as the actual physical suffering. Specialized intervention teams, along with discussion, self-help and support groups, can be of great help for persons affected and their loved ones as well.
Research bearing fruit
What we know about cancer is increasing at breakneck speed. Over the past two decades, research has helped us gather an impressive amount of data to help us better understand cancer onset mechanisms, along with ways to prevent, control and cure it. We have a better understanding of behaviours that promote its onset and those that reduce the risk of developing it, and we know more about effective preventive measures that can be put into place to fight the disease.
A fight of this great scope must in great part stem from public empowerment and awareness. We must all play an active role in the fight, for example by changing our lifestyle, eliminating tobacco, and adopting healthy eating habits.