Getting to Grips with Cancer

Contributed by: Dr Khoo Kei Siong

Participants at a seminar learn about the causes of cancer and how to prevent the disease.

Some 200 participants turned up at a ‘Causes and Prevention of Cancer’ seminar held at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry to learn more about cancer. They were not disappointed as they received first-hand information from doctors. Dr Myat Maw Tun, Senior Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, also the chairman of the Myanmar Club Singapore, and Dr Khoo Kei Siong, Deputy Medical Director and Senior Consultant of medical oncology, Parkway Cancer Centre were among the key speakers.

While Dr Myat addressed the Burmese community in his native tongue, Dr Khoo talked about the trend of cancer in both Singapore and Myanmar. As society becomes more affluent, cancer has become a major health problem in cities. In Singapore, cancer incidence cases have risen from 11,431 to 13,416 between 2011 and 2014. A similar trend is captured in Myanmar which has a population of about 54 million – about 11 per cent of all deaths are due to cancer. The trend is expected to rise in both countries. “At this rate, we are steering towards a nation where cancer is a common disease,” said Dr Khoo.

Some 90 to 95 per cent of the causes of cancer are attributed to environmental reasons while genetics only accounted for five to 10 per cent of cancer cases. While genetics cannot be altered to reduce one’s risk of cancer, Dr Khoo Kei Siong said more should be done to alter environmental factors including lifestyle habits. “In 10 patients, three can be protected from cancer if they cut out tobacco, alcohol, obesity, an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle, as these have been proven to increase one’s risk of cancer.

Making an effort to go for regular health screening like mammogram and colonoscopy can also increase one’s chance of successfully beating cancer by detecting the cancer early,” explained Dr Khoo. In Singapore where colorectal cancer is the top cancer among men and second most common  cancer among women, colonoscopy once every five years is recommended for those above 50 years old. Similarly, women as early as 40 years old are encouraged to go for a yearly mammogram.

In Myanmar, mouth and throat cancers are common as citizens typically consume a lot of tobacco, alcohol and paan, a local delicacy of chewing the betel leaf with areca nuts and tobacco. Lifestyle habits such as these could easily be avoided to steer clear of cancer. 28-year-old Pwint Phyu Soe who works as an administrative officer in a logistic company resonated with Dr Khoo, noting that many of her Burmese countrymen including her late grandfather suffered from throat cancer. Like many among the older generation, Pwint’s grandfather worked hard as a labourer and relied heavily on “booze and tobacco to relieve pain”.

It did not take long before her grandfather got hooked on these habits at an early age. “It was their way of life back then; no one gave much thought to the after-effects,” said Pwint. After suffering from throat cancer for two years, Pwint’s grandfather passed away last year. Targeted cancer treatments and immunotherapy are the latest treatments that have shown promising results in improving the chances of beating cancer.

Targeted treatments use drugs or other substances that are able to identify cancer cells more precisely and attack them while doing little damage to normal cells, while immunotherapy uses the patient’s own natural defences to fight cancer. Dr Khoo Kei Siong said: “These treatments, whether they seek out the cancer cells and destroy them directly as in the case of targeted therapies, or in immunotherapy by turning the body’s own immune system against the cancer, are able to achieve control of the cancer more precisely and effectively.” “Hence, collateral damage is minimised and in some cases the chances of surviving cancer are higher.”

One crucial take-home message for 18-year-old nursing student Yu Yu Lwin was this: “prevention is better than cure.” “Though it’s great to know that medical advancements have found ways to battle cancer more effectively, it’s important to realise that we play a central role in determining our fate – and whether we are eating and living our ways into sickness,” said Lwin. The aspiring nurse from Ngee Ann Polytechnic said she now better understands and empathises with cancer patients.

Written by Nuraisha Teng

POSTED IN Cancer Prevention, Cancer Treatments
TAGS colonoscopy, gastrointestinal cancer, head & neck (ENT) cancer, immunotherapy, mammogram, prevent cancer, seminar & workshop, targeted therapy
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