When last did you test for these 3 common cancers?
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Cervical, breast and prostate cancer are among the more common types of cancer and are increasingly affecting younger people in South Africa.
Many younger people still have the misconception that only older people get cancer, whereas these days we are seeing increasing numbers of individuals in their 30s and early 40s being affected, oncologist Dr Karen Motilall advises.
“I cannot emphasise enough that early detection can make an enormous difference and that many cancers are now curable if they are detected early, with various treatment options we can explore,” says Motilall, a specialist clinical and radiation oncologist who practises at Netcare Clinton, Netcare Union and Netcare Mulbarton hospitals, south of Johannesburg.
“While there are certain warning signs that may indicate the presence of cancer, by the time symptoms appear, the cancer may have already started to spread, which can make treatment more difficult. It is therefore important to reduce our risk factors where possible, and get into the routine of having regular check-ups and encouraging our loved ones to do the same.”
“Treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy including Gamma Knife radiosurgery, or any combination of these options, depending on the type of cancer, stage of cancer, the individual’s age and overall health, as well as their personal choice. We explore the options with each person to explain the benefits, side effects and potential risks, so that the individual has the information they need to make an informed decision about their treatment in consultation with their treating oncologist,” she notes.
Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy rays, which damage the DNA in cells to either kill the cancer cells or stop new cancer cells from forming. While radiation can cause some damage to healthy cells in the area around the cancerous tumour or lesion, the advanced technology that we use today at Netcare oncology centres are highly targeted to the cancerous cells to minimise damage to healthy tissue.
Motilall explains that radiation therapy can be administered either internally or externally. “External radiation therapy involves the person lying on a treatment table under the radiation machine, and the therapy is delivered to the specific area of the body where the cancer is located. The rest of the body is shielded from the radiation to prevent unnecessary exposure.”
Symptoms, risks and testing for three common cancers
Symptoms that may be associated with cervical cancer include unexplained weight loss, abnormal vaginal bleeding such as between menstrual periods or after sexual intercourse, persistent pelvic pain or lower back pain, and swelling in one leg.
Increased risk factors include smoking, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papillomavirus (HPV), a promiscuous male sexual partner or having many sexual partners and sex at a young age, among others.
“While the HPV vaccine has helped to protect women from certain strains associated with cervical cancer, it is important to note that the vaccine does not provide full protection and girls who have had the HPV vaccine should still have regular PAP screenings,” Motilall says.
A lump or swelling in the breast, changes to the appearance or texture of the skin on the breast or nipple, nipple discharge or pain in the breast are potential signs of breast cancer.
Apart from smoking, other risk factors include obesity, drinking alcohol, hormone replacement therapy or use of the contraceptive pill, early onset of menstruation or menopause after the age of 55. In addition, a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, previous radiation therapy, having children after the age of 30, or not having a full term pregnancy are also associated with increased risk for breast cancer.
“Regular breast examinations, including both self-examinations and professional examinations, as well as mammograms particularly from the age of 40, are integral to the early detection of possible breast cancer.”
Symptoms include more frequent or difficulty urinating, a sensation of the urine flow being blocked, or the presence of blood in urine or semen and should be immediately investigated.
Risk factors include age, obesity and family history of cancer, particularly prostate cancer.
“Men should have regular digital rectal examinations, and prostate-specific androgen tests so that if cancer is detected, we can take the necessary steps to treat it and prevent its spread as early as possible.”