Cancer is a disease occurring at the cellular level, resulting from mutations within a person’s genes and DNA. The disease is an ever present risk to us all. Should the initial mutations be minimal, the body’s white blood cells will be able to act as a guard unit to seek and destroy the cancer cells. However, should mutations increase to abnormal levels, the body will be unable to control them any longer and white blood cells will lose the fight to destroy the cancer cells. Cells will multiply at a rapid rate, eventually resulting in a tumor or the onset of cancer.
Cancer cells start out as normal cells, but if cell mutations develop and grow, they can invade into the bloodstream or lymphatic system and begin their journey to the body’s other organs.
Many forms of cancer display no obvious symptoms during their initial stages. However, if you suspect that you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it is advised that you seek medical attention at the earliest opportunity:
Patients and their relatives often feel a degree of confusion and lack a sufficient understanding of cancer treatments as there may be a number of different techniques utilized to treat the same form of cancer. Some patients may undergo a course of chemotherapy prior to surgery while others may require surgery alone. It may be necessary for some patients to undergo chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy but others may be suited to targeted cancer therapy due to their specific type of cancer. The understanding of cancer treatments is constantly shifting, leading some to make comparisons between doctors’ decisions at different institutions. However, the truth is that the diagnostic process requires a great deal of additional testing to ensure accurate staging of the cancer can take place. Consultations involving doctors from various fields, such as surgeons and radiologists, are a crucial part of this process. It is through these doctors working together and giving careful consideration to each option that an effective and realistic treatment plan can be formulated. There are currently a number of treatment techniques used in the fight against cancer.
Surgery is a form of localized treatment for cancer and there are increasing numbers of surgeons being trained due to innovations in this field. One of the techniques most commonly employed is laparoscopic minimally invasive surgery. Some patients may be required to undergo adjuvant therapy after surgery, which may involve a course of chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy depending on the stage and severity of their condition. Alternatively, for patients who are unsuitable for surgery due to the presence of a large cancerous lump, doctors may plan a course of radiotherapy or chemotherapy in order to reduce the lump’s size before an operation can take place. This technique is known as neoadjuvant therapy. Breast cancer patients are now able to undergo a special surgical procedure known as a lumpectomy that does not negatively impact the shape of their breasts and is less destructive than a traditional mastectomy.
Radiotherapy treatment involves training a high dose of radiation onto the patient’s skin tissue, penetrating down into the target area. The objectives of this technique are:
Chemotherapy is a form of treatment that relies on the use of chemicals which destroy cancer cells at a greater rate than healthy cells, meaning that chemotherapy can be used to stop cancer cells from multiplying. It is also highly effective in removing hard-to-spot cancers located throughout the body. However, healthy cells are also negatively impacted, putting patients at risk of hair loss, exhaustion, loss of appetite, vomiting and a low platelet count. Nevertheless, chemotherapy is a highly beneficial form of cancer treatment due to high levels of safety as well as its ability to treat many forms of the disease.
Hormonal therapy is suited for cancers that respond well to the presence of certain hormones, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer. This form of treatment is extremely effective and produces minimal side effects.
Targeted cancer therapy currently plays a crucial role in the treatment of cancer due to its effectiveness and lack of side effects when compared with chemotherapy. However, this does not mean everybody suffering from cancer will be suited for targeted cancer therapy. Medical staff are ultimately responsible for deciding on the course of action to take for each case.
Immunotherapy drugs help to improve the functioning capabilities of the body’s white blood cells and, like targeted cancer therapy, produce minimal side effects when compared to chemotherapy. And while the body will gradually adjust to the medication, increased white blood cell efficiency can cause a number of unwanted symptoms, including rashes, colon inflammation, diarrhea, pneumonia, an over- or under-functioning thyroid, or heightened blood glucose levels. Medical staff will consider the type of drug to be used depending on the form and stage of the cancer involved. Immunotherapy drugs are well suited for the treatment of a large number of cancers, including melanoma skin cancer, some forms of lymphoma, lung cancer, cancers of the head and neck, bowel cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, some types of breast cancer, stomach cancer that is resistant to chemotherapy and certain types of colon cancer.
Immunotherapy may be used in isolation or alongside other forms of cancer treatment, depending on the symptoms resulting from the disease. Statistics show that immunotherapy increases the 3-year survival rate among melanoma skin cancer patients from 5% to 42%, and the 5-year survival rate of lung cancer patients from 6% to 15% compared to chemotherapy.
Many cancer patients have asked their doctors how they have managed to end up with cancer despite leading a healthy lifestyle, including making recommended health-related changes. Unfortunately, there are a number of internal factors at play which differ from person to person. Some whole families may develop cancer. Families that contain direct blood relatives who have suffered from the disease will be at an increased risk of getting cancer when compared to the general population, so attending your annual health screening appointment is essential. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that some lifestyle and environmental factors can significantly increase a person’s chance of developing the disease, so people are advised to make the following changes where applicable: quit smoking; give up drinking alcohol; lose any excess weight; decrease consumption of processed meats, including sausage and ham; increase exercise; eat plenty of fruit and vegetables; get enough rest; and try to maintain a positive frame of mind, free from stress and anxiety.
Most cancer patients require understanding rather than pity, although many will likely feel a sense of dread when they are first diagnosed with cancer, especially those who are responsible for taking care of their families. They may feel anxiety, stress and denial when confronted with cancer, which makes it difficult for close family members to get close to the patient during those early days. It is important that the family use this time to find out more information regarding the type of cancer their loved one is suffering from by consulting medical staff or reading about the condition through a reliable source. This will help them provide a level of care that can improve the patient’s overall quality of life. While genuine sympathy may be shown, it is important that this doesn’t exceed appropriate levels because engaging in normal, fun conversations can also help to relieve some of the stress they may be feeling. Be sure to listen carefully to the person in those early stages because this will be a difficult time for which they will require sufficient support if they are to continue leading their normal life.
Current treatment techniques mean that cancer is now curable if detected before cancer spreading, making health check-ups a crucial aspect of anyone’s life. People aged 50 and above, whether male or female, should undergo a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer, while women over 40 should be undergoing screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer. In addition to health screening, making the aforementioned lifestyle changes is vital because, despite cancer treatments now being more effective than ever, isn’t it better to prevent cancer in the first place?
The Second Class Honors M.D., Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, 1993.