Cancer Basics

In simple terms, cancer is an abnormal growth of body cells. Each one of us is born with a potential for cancer. One cannot “Catch” it as one would an infection or a cold. When the programming of a cell or a group of cells is affected, growth may become uncontrolled.
The iconic disease of our time comes without warning, attacks those who abuse their body and those who don’t, those who have cancer in the family and those who don’t. And the numbers are rising.
Check out the signs that spell danger:

  • Cancer is now one of the top causes of death in India, after heart attack, up from seventh position in 2000.
  • India has some of the world’s highest incidences of cancer: Cervical, gall bladder, oral and pharynx, which are also the most common.
  • 70 per cent lives are snuffed out in the first year in India, due to late detection.
  • 80 per cent patients consult doctors at a stage when recovery is rare.
  • 71 per cent of deaths occur in the productive age band of 30-69 in India.
  • 15 per cent patients are children and young adults in India, compared to the global average of 0.5 per cent.
  • 50 per cent of cancers now caused by lifestyle choices, obesity to tobacco use.
“If left untreated, cancer can go through three stages,” says Dr Rajan Badwe, director of Tata Memorial Hospital & Cancer Research Institute, Mumbai. First, cancer cells multiply quickly, form a lump at one place, creating tiny blood vessels around it for blood, oxygen and nourishment. It then starts spreading: First to lymph channels, or the network of fluid that drains the body’s cells, then the lymph glands, and then the blood. Stage 3 means it has spread to the lymph nodes and Stage 4 indicates distant spread. But not all cancers behave the same. Some are aggressive and fast-growing, while some grow slowly.

Broadly, There are 19 cancers that can be generally related to life style.

    • Cancer of the Bladder – This is a slow growing cancer, and responds well to treatment. Tobacco and chronic irritation are prime causes. House Painters, hair dressers, truck drivers, textile workers and printers are at a risk due to the chemicals they are constantly in touch. Blood in urine and painful passing of urine are symptoms to beware.
    • Breast Cancer – Women who have menstruated early, with late or no pregnancies, late menopause, which have not breast fed their babies, are particularly at risk. If there is a family history of cancer – your mother, sister, massi or naani – please treat it as an early warning sign. Learn and practice Breast Self-Examination, and have Mammograms as recommended by your gynecologist. Evaluate diet too, too much of fat in your diet is a certain culprit. Selenium found in the soft bones of the fish, as well as whole grain protect against breast cancer. Exercise on regular basis.
    • Cervical Cancer – The most common of women’s cancer in India.This is a slow growing cancer that can easily be detected by a Pap smear. Not all Dysplasia become cancerous, women who menstruate early, marry early, with many sex partners, many children and poor anti natal care, as well as poor genital hygiene are likely to get this cancer. Intake of vitamin A and C and B folate are good as preventives. Intake of tobacco increases the chances of getting this cancer by 50%.
    • Colorectal Cancer – This is linked to high fat and low fiber diet. It is a rich mans’ disease, and prevalent in the richer countries. Diarrhea, pain in the abdomen, lower back or bladder, or a change in bowel habits are symptoms of this cancer.
    • Esophageal Cancer – Tobacco and alcohol predispose you to this cancer. Also pickled foods and too much spice. Symptoms are trouble in swallowing, choking, pain and spasms in the throat. Vitamin A and C are recommended as retardants.


  • Cancer In the Eyes – It can be of several types. Intense exposure to U/V rays of the sun may cause it. Light eyed persons are at greater risk of melanoma.
  • Kidney Cancer – It affects most men than women. Blood in the urine, backache, fullness or lumps in the upper abdomen, loss of appetite, are signs of Renal Cell Cancer. Renal pelvic cancers affect people over age of 60 years. Battery makers, electroplaters, and rubber workers are at particular risk. Tobacco, cadmium, high protein and saccharine are prime suspects.
  • Laryngeal Cancers – Hoarseness and discomfort in the throat are symptoms to look out for . Tobacco, alcohol, asbestos and nickel are suspected causes.
  • Liver Cancers – They may be primary or secondary. Symptoms are loss of appetite, weight loss, abdominal swelling, pain, fever and jaundice. Cirrhosis is closely linked with cancer of the liver. Avoid alcohol, vinyl chloride (plastics), drug abuse, aflatoxins from fungus on peanuts.
  • Lung Cancers – 90% of these can be attributed to smoking. Women are catching up on men smokers. Pollution in the cities has increased chances lung cancer. To counter the toxicity of pollution, increase intake of green leafy vegetables and yellow and orange fruit. Symptoms may include persistent cough, weight loss and loss of appetite.
  • Oral Cancers – They are the most common cancers in India . They include cancers of the mouth, tongue and oral cavity. This is definitely a life style induced cancer. Smoking, chewing of tobacco, and alcohol intake, coupled with inadequate Vitamin A and B complex are causes.
  • Ovarian Cancers – They affect mostly post-menopausal women. It affects women with few or no children, with a history of menses problems or other cancers. Symptoms are constipation, flatulence, water retention, a need to urinate, pain , swelling or nausea.
  • Cancer of the Pancreas – There is no known cure for this cancer. Symptoms are abdominal pain, jaundice, loss of appetite or weight loss. It is recommended that you abstain from tobacco use, follow a low fat diet, eat fruit and vegetables, moderately fried or grilled foods. Margarine not butter is a suspect.
  • Prostrate Cancer – The Silent Killer. Men over 50 years should include PSA (Prostrate Sensitive Antigen) test in their annual medical routine.
  • Skin Cancers – They are more common in white skinned people. People with light eyes and hair are at risk. Look out for moles that grow dark and uneven, itch or change color and out line.
  • Stomach Cancer – They are slow growing and hard to treat. People with Blood group A and who have pernicious anemia are at risk. Eat plenty of raw veg-cruciform, or dark green and yellow vegetables with vitamin A and C are best. Avoid highly salted or smoked or pickled foods.
  • Testicular Cancer – Men with undescended testicals are at risk. Enlargement of one testicle, dragging ache in the lower abdomen are signs to beware of. Regular Self Examination is strongly recommended.
  • Thyroid Cancers – They are common in women of child bearing age. Survivors of nuclear holocausts at Bikini Atoll, Nagasaki and Hiroshima suffered these cancers due to exposure to radiation.
  • Uterine Cancer – It affects women over 50 years. Hormone treatment, high fat diets, smoking and drinking, obesity, diabetes and high BP are risk factors. The Pap smear is again an early warning tool.