Johannesburg - Joan Deare lived a healthy life – she didn’t smoke or drink excessively, and ate healthily and exercised regularly. No one in her immediate family had ever had cancer. So when she started getting stomach aches in mid-2010, she took an over-the-counter remedy and carried on as usual.
Although the pain persisted, she didn’t suspect anything serious, and when she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome at the end of that year, she didn’t think to ask for a colonoscopy to check that it wasn’t cancer.
“I trusted my doctor’s opinion and attributed the symptoms to rich meals, never suspecting anything too serious,” says Joan, a former social worker who often counselled cancer patients herself.
When her symptoms didn’t improve with medication or diet, she went back for a second opinion. Eventually in August 2011, Joan was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. After radical surgery and months of chemotherapy, Joan was declared cancer-free.
“Cancer has helped me to expect less from life, but also to make the most of it,” says Joan, who now advocates regular cancer screening, especially when you experience inexplicable symptoms. “Keep on going, but don’t deny your gut feeling.”
Joan is one of about a million South Africans alive today who have beaten cancer, according to Dr Carl Albrecht, who is the Cancer Association of South Africa’s (Cansa) head of research. She is also part of a growing group of people who developed this disease for no apparent reason.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body become abnormal and start to grow uncontrollably due to damage to a person’s DNA or genes. In some cases, people inherit defective genes from their parents, giving rise to hereditary cancers, which make up around 10 percent of all cancers.
In the other 90 percent of cases, people are exposed to a carcinogen, or something that damages their DNA. This can be from something they ingest, inhale or otherwise come into contact with.
“It is good news that only 10 percent of cancers are hereditary, while the other 90 percent is caused by something in the environment,” says Albrecht, “because if we can identify these factors, we can remove them from the environment and reduce the cancer burden.”
The main cancer-causing culprit in the environment is tobacco, which is responsible for a third of all cancer cases. Diet is behind another 30 percent of cancers, and an equal percentage of cancers are due to infections, hormones, radiation, chemicals or pollution, according to Professor Vikash Sewram, who heads the African Cancer Institute.
About nine percent of cancers are due to unknown causes.
Research is continuously shedding light on possible links between cancer and chemicals we use every day. Recently, University of Cape Town researchers found dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, in various hair-straightening products used in South Africa as part of Brazilian blowouts.
“Chemicals came under the spotlight with the Baby Bottle Scandal that highlighted the dangers of bisphenol A (BPA),” Albrecht says. “From there, the story has been unfolding, and every other day you hear about another chemical in your home or kitchen that may be harmful.”
For instance, you’ll be surprised at how many carcinogens you encounter at a braai. Not only tobacco smoke is bad for your health – smoke from any burning material, including cooking fires, are also laden with carcinogens. That beer, whisky, wine or whatever alcoholic beverage you prefer contains ethanol, which can cause cancer when used excessively.
Your boerewors might contain nitrite, a preservative with carcinogenic properties commonly used in processed meat, and that charred crust on your chop or steak contains the known carcinogens heterolylic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Some occupations have also been linked to cancer due to regular exposure to carcinogens. High-risk occupations include painting, hairdressing, carpentry and joinery, drycleaning, firefighting, printing, textile manufacturing and welding.
Although scientists are working tirelessly to find new treatments, Albrecht says there is no magic cancer cure in the foreseeable future. Eradication of the disease will require a combination of new and affordable treatments and vaccines, greater prevention efforts, and stricter legislation around carcinogens, the same as with tobacco.
It is impossible to protect yourself from everything in the environment that may be carcinogenic, but there are ways to limit your exposure.
The first, and most obvious thing, is to avoid cigarette smoke – if you are a smoker, quit, and if you’re a non-smoker, stay away from other people’s smoke.
If you are not yet convinced to practise safe sex, here’s another reason to condomise – certain strains of the human papilloma- virus (HPV), which is transferred via sexual contact, cause cancer of the cervix, penis, anus, mouth and throat. There is a vaccine guarding against HPV, and parents should ensure their children are vaccinated.
Also, don’t skimp on sunscreen – always apply generous amounts when going outside. A sunscreen’s sun protection factor (SPF) is calculated on a 2mm-thick layer of sunscreen, and applying scant amounts reduces the SPF and efficacy of the product.
There are also some cancer-safety shopping tips. Look out for the Cansa logo while shopping – these products have been tested or examined by Cansa and were found to be safe.
Be careful handling slips and receipts made from thermal invoice paper, which contains BPA. Albrecht suggest washing your hands after handling it and placing receipts in a plastic bag in your handbag to avoid BPA contaminating other items.
Also be wary of cling wrap that was applied in store – don’t freeze food products in the original cling wrap, rather transfer it to a container or zip-lock bag before freezing. – Health-e News Service
From coffee to anti-perspirant, everyday items are increasingly under scrutiny about whether they could be causing cancer. Don’t worry, your cup of morning coffee and the anti-perspirant in your gym bag won’t give you cancer, but here are some of the things that might:
l OBESITY: Obesity has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. It is believed that excess fat on the body causes inflammation, which leads to carcinogenesis.
Does it cause cancer? Yes.
l ORAL CONTRACEPTIVES: The commonly used oestrogen-progestogen oral contraceptive is classified as a known carcinogen.
Doe it cause cancer? Yes.
l TANNING BEDS: Tanning beds emit ultraviolet radiation which causes cancer.
Do they cause cancer? Yes.
l SUNSHINE: Ultraviolet A and B radiation is a well-known cause of skin cancer.
Does it cause cancer? Yes.
l HAIR STRAIGHTENER(Brazilian keratin type): Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and high levels of this chemical can be found in hair-straightening products. Does it cause cancer? Probably carcinogenic.
l FRYING: Yet another reason to stay away from fried food. The emissions released from frying food are potentially carcinogenic.
Does it cause cancer? Probably carcinogenic.
JURY IS STILL OUT...
And the jury is still out about whether these household items and everyday activities will increase your risk of cancer.
l CANNED FOOD AND DRINKS: Cans are sealed with an epoxy resin that contains BPA – a known carcinogen. However, it is uncertain to what extent this chemical is transferred to the foodstuff in the can.
l CLING WRAP: Household cling wrap has been tested by Cansa and found to be safe. However, many of the large rolls of cling wrap used to cover food products at retailers contain a plasticiser with carcinogenic properties.
l GINKGO BILOBA EXTRACT: Used in many herbal supplements as a memory booster, Ginkgo biloba was recently linked to the development of liver and thyroid cancers, as well as nasal tumours in laboratory rats. Although the same result have not been confirmed in humans, experts are cautioning against its use.
l PROCESSED MEAT: The food preservative nitrite is often used in the preparation of processed meats. Although low levels of nitrite are not harmful, concentrated levels might occur on dried meat products.
l COSMETICS: Although the verdict is still out on whether cosmetics may be carcinogenic, Albrecht raised his concern about varying standards and lack of regulation. Known carcinogens such as lead and formaldehyde have been found in some cosmetics.
l HAIR DYE: Earlier hair dye formulations contained high levels of carcinogens such as aromatic amines. Although the hair industry has reformulated its products to be safer, dyes contain as many as 5 000 chemicals, some of which may be carcinogenic to humans.
l STRESS: Although stress itself has not been linked to cancer, it is believed to weaken the body’s natural defences, which might make it vulnerable to the development of cancer cells.
l TALCUM POWDER: Although there are no strong links between cancer and talcum powder, researchers have found a higher-than-normal rate of ovarian cancer in women who regularly use it in the genital area.
l CELLPHONE, TV AND RADIO WAVES: Although there has been some research linking radiofrequency electromagnetic fields – emitted by wireless devices such as cellphones - to certain types of brain cancers, the World Health Organisation released a statement saying the evidence is insufficient and classified is as being possibly carcinogenic.
l THERMAL INVOICE PAPER: It contains BPA, and a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found levels of BPA in people’s urine after they handled thermal invoice paper.
BABY BOTTLE SCANDAL
In 2010 it came to light that bisphenol A (BPA), a common industrial chemical used in the production of plastic containers, including baby bottles and sippy cups, poses various health risks, including raising the risk of cancer.
Since then many countries, including South Africa, have banned the import and manufacture of baby bottles containing BPA.
However, this chemical is still widely used in South Africa, particularly in the epoxy resin used to seal canned food and drinks.
And it is also used in thermal invoice paper commonly used to print receipts in the retail industry.