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A deadly but fairly curable disease

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Globally, cancer remains a serious public health problem affecting millions of men and women. According to GLOBOCAN 2018, an online database of estimates of cancer incidence and mortality in 185 countries compiled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there were 18.1 million new cancer cases and 9.6 million cancer deaths last year.

What’s more, IARC, a specialized cancer research agency of the World Health Organization, estimated that one in five men and one in six women worldwide would develop cancer during their lifetimes, while one in eight men and one in 11 women would die from it.

“The increasing cancer burden is due to several factors, including population growth and aging as well as the changing prevalence of certain causes of cancer linked to social and economic development. This is particularly true in rapidly growing economies, where a shift is observed from cancers related to poverty and infections to cancers associated with lifestyles more typical of industrialized countries,” the agency said in a press release.

Cancers of the lung, female breast and colorectum (colon and rectum) were the top three cancer types in terms of incidence. In terms of the number of deaths caused, the leading types were lung cancer (responsible for 1.8 million deaths or 18.4% of the total), colorectal cancer (881,000 deaths or 9.2%) and stomach cancer (783,000 deaths).

In the Philippines, cancer is also a major issue not only because it affects and kills many people but also because treating it can be prohibitively expensive. According to the GLOBOCAN 2018 estimates, the number of new cancer cases last year in the country reached 141,021. Of these cases, 79,019 involved women of all ages and 62,002 involved men of all ages.

The five most common cancers, regardless of sex and age, were breast (24,798 cases or 17.6% of the total), lung (17,255 or 12.2%), colorectum (15,680 or 11.1%), liver (9,628 or 6.8%), and prostate (7,290 or 5.2%). The cancers that were frequently diagnosed in women in the country were breast, cervix uteri, colorectum, lung and ovary. Meanwhile, cancers of the lung, colorectum, prostate, liver and blood (leukemia) were the most frequently diagnosed in men.




In 2018, it was estimated that 86,337 died from different types of cancer in the country. The three deadliest types were lung (15,454 deaths or 17.9% of the total), liver (9,485 or 11%) and breast (8,057 or 9.3%). The risk of dying from cancer before the age of 75 for both men and women was 10.4%. Men, though, had a higher risk (11.9%) than women (9.1%).

Cancer has many causes, including genetic mutations and risky behaviors like smoking. But there are also viruses that can lead to cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer, for instance, are caused by certain types of the human papillomavirus or HPV, a sexually transmitted viral infection. It’s also widely known that hepatitis B and C viruses can cause liver cancer. (These infections have also been linked to a group of blood cancers called non-Hodgkin lymphoma).

But medical science has made great strides in improving cancer survival rates. Surgery is the main form of treatment for solid cancers, according to Dr. Beatrice J. Tiangco, member of the board of directors of The Medical City and consultant director of Augusto P. Sarmiento Cancer Institute.

Solid cancers are those that involve the organs, such as the liver, lungs and breasts. (For blood cancers like leukemia, chemotherapy, which entails the use of drugs to kill cancerous cells, is one of the primary interventions.)

But treatments may vary depending on how seriously a cancer has grown and spread. According to Dr. Tiangco, if a cancer is in an early stage, it might be better to take the surgical route. But if it’s in an advanced stage, chemotherapy might be employed first to shrink the tumor before it gets surgically removed.

“But how will you remove it if you don’t know you have it? So you undergo screening,” Dr. Tiangco said. Early detection can greatly increase a cancer patient’s chance of survival. “If you’re able to diagnose cancer early while it’s still limited to one organ, and you remove the tumor, you can be cured,” she said.

New forms of treatment have emerged, and one that has been garnering so much attention is immunotherapy. This treatment harnesses the body’s immune system to combat cancer.

Dr. Tiangco emphasized the need to work together with a cancer patient on what should be done — for instance, what particular treatment to pursue — to achieve cure or at least extend life.

There are also steps one can take to reduce the risk of developing cancer. Dr. Tiangco suggests getting a vaccine for hepatitis B (for both males and females) and for HPV (for females). “Don’t smoke, don’t even start. You can drink alcohol but in moderation. Be fit. Exercise regularly, three to five times a week, for 60 to 90 minutes. These are things that anyone can do for free,” she added.

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