Fighting digestive cancers with the aid of technology

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Dr. Liau Kui Hin

Cancers affecting different parts of the digestive system, particularly the colon, stomach and liver, are among the most common and fatal types of cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, there were 1.8 million cases of colorectal cancer and 1.03 million cases of stomach cancer worldwide in 2018. During the same year, 862,000 deaths from colorectal cancer, 783,000 from stomach cancer and 782,000 from liver cancer were recorded.

These cancers are fairly widespread here in the Philippines. A Philippine Cancer Society study estimated that in 2015, there would be tens of thousands of new digestive cancer cases, many of which involving the colon/rectum (9,625) and liver (8,649).

It’s worth noting that of the 10 most common cancer sites the study identified, three are found in the digestive system: colon/rectum, liver and stomach.

Thousands were also predicted to perish due to digestive cancers. The study estimated that 8,335 would die from cancer of the liver alone.

Certain harmful lifestyle choices are widely known as risk factors for digestive cancers, which can also result from gene mutations. These include smoking, excessive alcohol use and overconsumption of processed meat and other unhealthy foods.

But once diagnosed with cancer, a patient should not give up hope. “Early diagnosis to catch the cancer at the early stage offers an excellent chance of long-term survival or cure. With current advances in medical therapy and surgical technology, the survival outcomes after successful treatment have improved markedly,” said Dr. Liau Kui Hin, a general surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital in Singapore who has almost two decades of experience diagnosing and treating digestive cancers.

He noted that cancer treatments have progressed by leaps and bounds in recent years owing in part to exponential cancer research and developments in medical technology.

“The treatment of cancer has advanced into personalized or precision medicine where treatment is individualized or customized to each patient. Oncologists have a wide repertoire of weaponry in the fight against cancers, ranging from targeted therapy, molecular therapy, immunotherapy, cancer vaccines, CAR-T-cell therapy to gene therapy,” Dr. Liau said.

Surgeons, he added, are now also well-equipped to take on challenging cancer cases and assure patients of excellent outcomes, thanks to advancements in the fields of medical optics, miniaturization of instrumentation with nanotechnology, robot-assisted surgery, artificial intelligence and medical bioengineering and biomaterials science.

“If the right technology can be utilized appropriately to augment the skills of the surgeons, the surgical outcomes wound certainly be more superior in terms of faster recovery, less complications, lower risk of cancer relapse and longer survivorship following cancer surgery,” Dr. Liau said.

Still, it’s important to remember that a digestive cancer patient’s prognosis is dependent on a variety of factors, including the site, size and stage of cancer.

“Among digestive cancers, pancreatic cancer, especially the adenocarcinoma type, is the most aggressive and most unforgiving. It has high fatality rate if diagnosed late. On the other hand, when it comes to colon cancer, especially if diagnosed at an early stage, the chances of living beyond 10 years after successful treatment are high,” Dr. Liau said.

Also, there’s always the possibility that the cancer will relapse. “All cancers, following treatment, have the potential to relapse or recur. Regular surveillance is important to catch the relapse early. Even with cancer relapse, effective treatment and intervention can confer good outcome and prolonged survival,” Dr. Liau said.

For more information about the digestive cancer and other condition, visit

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