February 4th is World Cancer Day, so it’s time to talk about the “C” word. Read on to find out more about the Word Cancer Day campaign, what cancer means in the world today, how you can assess your risk, and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing this devastating condition.
What Is World Cancer Day?
World Cancer Day is a global initiative started by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) in 2000. The annual aims are to raise awareness of cancer, to pressure governments around the world to prioritize the fight against cancer and to improve global education and understanding of the deadly disease.
World Cancer Day has had an undeniable impact, and almost 950 activities took place across 127 countries last year. From free cancer screenings to fun runs and sponsored head shavings, these global events engaged communities and led to 62 government leaders responding with “strengthened support and commitment.”
The campaign website tells you how you can get involved and show some support as an individual. 2021 marks the halfway point of the three-year “I Am and I Will” campaign that started in 2019. It’s all about your personal commitment to the cause and the individual action you plan to employ. The aim is to reduce the number of premature deaths due to cancer and other non-communicable diseases by one-third by 2030.
Why Is World Cancer Day Important?
Something like one in six deaths around the world result from cancer. 9.6 million people will die of this disease in 2020 alone, making cancer one of the biggest global killers. Many of these deaths could be prevented with more governmental support. Lower and middle-income countries continue to see the biggest increases in global cancer cases.
These countries are the least equipped to deal with the social and economic impacts of the disease, hence the huge need for change that can only come through increased awareness and governmental support. In its World Cancer Declaration, the UICC states its intentions for the World Cancer Day campaign like this:
“We believe that access to life-saving cancer diagnosis, treatment, and care should be equal for all – no matter where you live, what your income, your ethnicity, or gender. We believe that governments must be accountable and national leadership on policies, legislations, investment, and innovation is key to accelerated progress. We believe that individuals together can create change.”
Although the campaign is confined to one day per year, the UICC also hosts a biennial World Cancer Congress, which affords leaders and health experts an opportunity to share knowledge and build connections.
7 Top Risk Factors for Developing Cancer
There are many components that can contribute to your risk of developing cancer, and you can better protect your health by understanding these risk factors. According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk factors you need to be factoring into your thinking about cancer include advanced age, alcohol, diet, genetic predisposition, obesity, sunlight, and tobacco. Let’s take each one in turn:
- Advanced Age. Age is the biggest risk factor for developing cancer. More than 25% of new cancer cases are diagnosed in patients between the ages of 65 and 75. As you get older, it is important that you become increasingly aware of any potential warning signs.
- Alcohol. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of many different cancers, including cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, larynx, liver, and breast. The more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk of cancer.
- Diet. Certain foods, such as charred meats, could put you at an increased risk of developing some cancers. A healthy, balanced diet could be one way to lower your cancer risk. Start by discussing your diet with a medical professional.
- Genetic Predisposition. Some people are genetically predisposed to developing cancer, and hereditary gene mutations play a role in around 5% to 10% of all cancer cases. While you can’t change your genes, you can take more care if you know you could be at increased risk.
- Obesity. According to World Health Organization statistics, there were 650 million obese individuals around the world in 2016. Obesity increases your risk for many kinds of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, rectum, esophagus, kidney, and gallbladder. Maintaining a healthy weight may make you less likely to develop cancer.
- Sunlight. The harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight can cause skin damage leading to skin cancer. The prevailing advice is to avoid direct sunlight, wear sunscreen where your clothes don’t cover, and avoid tanning beds altogether.
- Tobacco. Tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Smoking, and even inhaling secondhand smoke, can increase your risk of lung, larynx, mouth, esophageal, throat, bladder, kidney, liver, stomach, colon, rectal, and cervical cancers. If you’re a smoker, the most effective way to protect yourself – and others – is to quit as soon as you can.
How Can You Get Checked for Cancer?
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that early diagnosis can increase your chances of successful cancer treatment, so here are some things you can do to help catch cancer before it catches you.
See the Early Warning Signs – 5 Things to Watch Out For
First things first. You should always be on the lookout for the early symptoms of cancer, but don’t assume you have cancer simply because you’re experiencing some of the following symptoms. Just see it as a signal to discuss with your doctor as soon as you can, if only to rule out the possibility. Although the early signs can differ from cancer to cancer, the American Cancer Society highlights the following warning signs:
- Unexplained weight loss. Sudden and unexplained weight loss of more than ten pounds could be an early sign of some cancers, especially of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus, or lungs.
- Fever. While a fever can indicate a wide range of health conditions, it can also be an early symptom of cancer. It’s not always an early sign, however, because fever sometimes doesn’t start until the initial cancer has spread. This particular sign is likely to be associated with cancers of the immune system.
- Fatigue. Extreme tiredness or fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest could be a warning sign of cancer. It is indicative of blood-related cancers such as leukemia.
- Pain. Some cancers, such as bone cancers or testicular cancer, can cause you pain early on, and lower back pain could be an early indicator of cancers of the colon, rectum, or ovaries.
- Skin changes. Unexplained skin changes could indicate skin cancer (obviously) or other kinds of cancer. Look out for dark patches, yellow areas, dry and itchy areas, red skin, and excessive hair growth.
Assess Your Risk with DNA Analysis
Some people are genetically more predisposed than other people to cancer, and you can discover if you’re at higher risk by taking an at-home DNA test. All you have to do is spit into a test tube, take a cheek swab, or (at worst) prick your finger, then send in your sample for analysis. You’ll see your results online within weeks if not days, depending on the lab. Here are some of the companies that test your predisposition to various cancers (as well as providing a lot of additional information about your health):
Futura Genetics: The Futura Genetics test reveals your genetic risks for 28 of the most common health conditions, including your predispositions to developing lung cancer, bladder cancer, basal cell carcinoma, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and gastric cancer. Its labs are CLIA-certified, so they meet the United States federal regulatory standards for lab testing.
23andMe: 23andMe was one of the first companies to make at-home DNA testing kits available to the general public. Its FDA-approved tests assess your risk of developing breast cancer by checking for three variants in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Helix: Helix’s testing kits are supported by dedicated clinical and research teams. This brand offers several tests that look for predispositions to a range of conditions including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. The results include a lifestyle risk assessment and a breast cancer referral screening tool.
Color: Color’s Hereditary Cancer Test also examines the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes for breast cancer susceptibility. These tests have to be ordered by a physician, but you can choose to use one of the company’s own physicians at the checkout. The results will indicate your chances of getting ovarian, breast, prostate, or colorectal cancer.
Invitae: Invitae’s DNA testing kit tests your likelihood of developing medical conditions across eight major organs. Its report reveals your predispositions to breast cancer, gynecological cancers, prostate cancer, and gastrointestinal cancers, and there is a family follow-up testing service for people whose relatives have tested positive for certain genetic variants.
Veritas Genetics: The Veritas Genetics testing kit could be particularly useful for women wanting to discover their genetic risks for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome. The clinical-grade results could also help you improve your lifestyle to avoid developing these conditions. Discovering your predispositions to different kinds of cancer can help you take preventative measures or at least be more vigilant of the warning signs detailed earlier. Although these predispositions don’t mean you’ll definitely develop cancer, it could be worth discussing the results with your doctor.
Go to Regular Screenings
Whether or not you have genetic predispositions or visible symptoms, the best way to guard against cancer is to take part in regular screenings. The more often you’re screened for cancer, the better your chances of an early diagnosis.
World Cancer Day aims to increase international awareness of the global cancer risk. The danger, of course, is to think that we only need to consider cancer once a year. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death all around the world, all year round. Education is key, and in this article, we hope to have played our part in helping you catch the signs of cancer before cancer catches up with you. Remember to look out for the early symptoms, test to see if you have any genetic predispositions, and get screened.
Visit these websites for more information about the issues discussed in this article:
- World Cancer Day: https://www.worldcancerday.org
- American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org
- World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/health-topics/cancer
- National Cancer Institute: https://www.cancer.gov