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Know the symptoms of cancer and when to get tested


It’s World Cancer Day, and the prospects of winning the war against this deadly disease are both good and bad.

In the United States, cancer deaths have fallen by 33% since 1991, with an estimated 3.8 million lives saved, largely due to advances in early detection and treatment. Yet 10 million people worldwide lost their lives to cancer in 2020.

“For the past three years, the number one cause of death worldwide was actually cancer, not Covid-19,” said Dr. Arif Kamal, chief patient officer for the American Cancer Society.

Cancer symptoms can mimic those of many other diseases, so it can be difficult to tell them apart, experts say. Signs include unexplained weight loss or gain, swelling or lumps in the groin, neck, stomach, or armpits; and fever and night sweats, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Bladder, bowel, skin and neurological problems can be signs of cancer, such as changes in hearing and vision, seizures, headaches and bleeding or bruising for no reason, the official said. ‘institute. But most cancers don’t cause pain at first, so you can’t trust that as a sign.

“We tell patients that if they have symptoms that don’t improve after a few weeks, they should see a doctor,” Kamal said. “That doesn’t mean the diagnosis will be cancer, though.”

Rather than wait symptoms, the key to keeping cancer at bay is prevention, along with screenings to detect the disease in its early stages. This is essential, experts say, as new cases of cancer are on the rise globally.

A surprising number of new diagnoses are in people under 50, according to a 2022 review of available research by scientists at Harvard University.

Cases of cancers of the breast, colon, esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, prostate, stomach and thyroid are increasing in the 50s, 40s and even 30 years since the 1990s.

That’s unusual for a disease that typically strikes people over 60, Kamal said. “Cancer is generally thought of as an age-related disease because you give yourself enough time to have a kind of genetic whoopsie.”

Older cells endure decades of wear and tear from environmental toxins and less-than-favorable lifestyle choices, making them prime candidates for a cancerous mutation.

“We thought it took time for this to happen, but if someone is 35 when they develop cancer, the question is ‘What could have happened?'” Kamal asked.

Nobody knows exactly, but smoking, alcohol consumption, air pollution, obesity, lack physical activity and According to the World Health Organization, a diet low in fruits and vegetables is a key risk factor for cancer.

Add them up and you have a potential culprit for the advent of early cancers, the Harvard researchers said.

“Increased consumption of highly processed or Westernized foods, as well as changes in lifestyles, environment…and other factors could all have contributed to such changes in exposures,” the authors wrote. researchers in their 2022 review.

“You don’t need 65 years of eating crispy, charred or processed meat as your main diet, for example,” Kamal added. “What you need is about 20 years, and then you start seeing stomach and colorectal cancers, even at a young age.

So, how to fight against the big C? Start in your twenties, Kamal said.

Many of the most common cancers, including those of the breast, bowel, stomach and prostate, are genetic in origin, which means that if a close relative has been diagnosed, you may have inherited a predisposition to develop this cancer. Also.

This is why it is essential to know your family’s medical history. Kamal suggests young people sit down with their grandparents and other close relatives and ask them questions about their illnesses, then write them down.

“The average person doesn’t actually know the level of granularity that’s useful for accessing risk,” he said.

“When I talk to patients, what they say is, ‘Oh, yeah, grandma had cancer. There are two questions I want to know: at what age was the cancer diagnosed and what type of cancer was it? I need to know if she had cancer in her 30s or 60s because that determines your level of risk. But often they don’t know.

The same goes for the type of cancer, Kamal said.

“People often say ‘Grandma had bone cancer.’ Well, multiple myeloma and osteosarcoma are bone cancers, but both are relatively rare,” he said. “So I don’t think grandma had bone cancer. think Grandma had another cancer that had spread to the bone, and I need to know.

Then the doctors need to know what happened to that relative. Was the cancer aggressive? What was the response to treatment?

“If I hear mom or grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 and died at 41, so I know the cancer is very aggressive, and that changes my perception of risk. I can add additional tests that are not listed in the guidelines for your age. »

Cancer screening guidelines are based on the population level assessments, not individual risks, Kamal said. So if cancer (or other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, or even migraines) runs in the family, you become an outlier and need a personalized plan.

“And I will tell you that the whole scientific community is looking at this younger age change for different cancers and wondering, ‘Should the guidelines be more deliberate and intentional to younger populations to give them some of this advice? »

If you have a clear family history of cancer, this reduces your risk, but does not eliminate it. You can reduce your risk of cancer by eating a healthy plant-based diet, getting the recommended amount of exercise and sleep, limiting alcohol intake, and not smoking or vaping, say experts. .

Protecting yourself from the sun and tanning beds is also essential, as harmful ultraviolet rays damage the DNA of skin cells and are the main risk factor for melanoma. However, skin cancer can appear even where the sun doesn’t shine, Kamal said.

“There has been an increase in melanomas that appear in not exposed to the sun areas such as the armpits, genital area and between the toes,” he said. “So it’s important to check – or have a partner or a dermatologist check – your whole body once a year.”

Skin control: Take off all your clothes and carefully examine all your skin, including the palms, soles of the feet, between the toes and buttocks, and in the genital area. Use method A, B, C, D, E to analyze worrying points, then consult a specialist if you have any concerns, the American Academy of Dermatology has advised.

Also see a dermatologist if you have itching, bleeding or see a mole that looks like an “ugly duckling” and stands out from the rest of the spots on your body.

Get vaccinated if you don’t have: Two vaccines protect against cancers of the cervix and liver, and others against cancers such as melanoma are in development.

Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and sexual secretions and can cause liver cancer and cirrhosis, which is scarred and damaged liver. A series of three injections, beginning at birth, is part of the recommended childhood vaccine schedule in the United States. Unvaccinated adults should check with their doctor to find out if they are eligible.

The HPV vaccine protects against several strains of human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The human papilloma virus can cause fatal cervical cancer as well as cancers of the vagina, anus and penis. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils.

“These HPV-related head and neck cancers are more aggressive than non-HPV-related cancers. cancers,” Kamal said, “so both boys and girls should be vaccinated.”

Since the vaccine was approved in 2006 in the United States for adolescents From 11 to 13, cervical cancer rates fell by 87%. Today, the vaccine can be given for up to 45 years, the CDC said.

Breast self-examinations: According to the WHO, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed type of cancer worldwide, followed by lung, colorectal, prostate, skin and stomach cancers.

Both men and women can get breast cancer, so men with a family history should also be aware of the symptoms, experts say. These include pain, redness or irritation, dimpling, thickening or swelling of any part of the breast. New lumps, whether in the breast or in the armpits, any nipple pulling, and nipple discharge other than breast milk are also concerning symptoms, the CDC said.

Women should do a self-exam once a month and see a doctor if there are any warning signs, the National Breast Cancer Association has advised. Choose a time when the breasts will be less tender and lumpy, about seven 10 days after the onset of menstrual flow.

Screenings and tests: Home exams and vaccinations can save lives, but many cancers can only be detected by lab tests, scans or biopsies. The American Cancer Society has a recommended screening list by age.

Doing them in a timely manner increases the chances of early detection and treatment, but it’s still up to everyone to know their risk factors, Kamal said.

“Remember that the guidelines are only for people at medium risk,” he said. “The only way for someone to know if the guidelines apply to them is to really understand their family history.”

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