What immediately comes to your mind when you hear the word “cancer”? There are many elements that may influence how people think about disease and illness, ranging from socio-cultural to psychological to spiritual factors and beliefs. Perceptions about cancer are no different. For some, likely influenced by the well-known adage commonly and historically used in mass media, mental images of a military regiment raging war against enemy invaders might subconsciously appear upon hearing the word cancer. For others, more concrete images of big clumps, sprouting seedlings, or even multiple vehicles stuck bumper-to-bumper in a massive traffic block on a congested highway might appear. And for others, images of a winding road and compass just might appear — relating cancer to a more abstract idea of a journey, with the compass representing all factors that help give direction, help make better sense of the unknown, and therefore somehow help make the journey a bit more manageable.
Cancer has understandably become a scary word, but it doesn’t have to remain so. Studies have shown that increasing one’s knowledge about the disease oftentimes helps a person better cope with a cancer diagnosis and helps reduce the overall initial “fear” usually linked to the disease.
Probably the best way to describe cancer is as a general term for a large group of diseases that all have to do with cells. Cancer is the disease that results when cellular changes lead to uncontrolled growth and division of cells. Some types of cancer cause rapid growth and division of cells; other types cause slower cell growth and cell division. Cancer can affect virtually any part of the body, and while some forms of cancer result in visible growths known as tumours, other forms of cancer do not. Cancerous cells can from tumours, weaken the body’s immune system, and cause other changes that interfere with normal body functioning.
Five behavioural and dietary risk factors are known to contribute to an estimated 30 per cent of cancer deaths: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable consumption, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol intake.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), globally, the cancer burden is estimated to have risen to 18.1 million new cases in 2018. Moreover, cancer is responsible for 9.6 million deaths in 2018, making it the second leading cause of death worldwide.
Cancer in Abu Dhabi
So what about here in the UAE? Within Abu Dhabi, specifically, cancer is the third leading cause of death, accounting for 16 per cent of total deaths as of the latest Department of Health-Abu Dhabi statistics. Lung cancer, colorectal cancer, liver cancer, leukaemia, and pancreatic cancer are the top five leading causes of cancer death among men in the emirate. Breast cancer, colorectal cancer, leukaemia, ovarian cancer, and lung cancer rank among the top five leading causes of cancer death among women in Abu Dhabi.
With such alarming statistics, again, it is understandable that the very idea of cancer tends to conjure up feelings of panic, anxiety, and outright fear. The good news, however, is that it does not have to remain so. In fact, many cancers have a high chance of being cured if detected at early stages and if treated sufficiently. WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently cited that between 30—50 per cent of cancers can actually be prevented by avoiding what are known as risk factors and employing current evidence-based prevention strategies.
A risk factor is any characteristic, attribute, or exposure of a person that increases the likelihood of developing a particular disease or injury. Risk factors are commonly described as potential precursors of dysfunction, disease, and illness. For example, five behavioural and dietary risk factors are known to contribute to an estimated 30 per cent of cancer deaths: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable consumption, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol intake. Moreover, tobacco use is the single most significant risk factor for cancer and is responsible for approximately 22 per cent of cancer-related deaths worldwide (WHO, 2019).
The US Department of Health and Human Services cites that over the past decade alone, overweight and obesity have appeared as new risk factors for developing certain cancers such as colorectal, breast, endometrial, pancreas, and kidney cancers.
What we do know is that simply modifying or avoiding key risk factors linked to cancer can significantly reduce the overall burden of cancer. Cancer deaths can be reduced through early detection and early treatment. Early diagnosis and screening are the two main components involved in early detection.
■ Vaccinate against HPV and hepatitis B virus.
■ Control occupational hazards.
■ Reduce exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
■ Reduce exposure to ionising radiation (occupational or medical diagnostic imaging)
The UAE government has initiated appropriate and timely tactics in direct response to the ongoing cancer burden faced by UAE citizens and residents alike. As part of the UAE National Agenda, the UAE aims to reduce cancer fatalities by nearly 18 per cent by the year 2021.
UAE cancer screening programmes
To this noble end, the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention holds cancer screening programmes regularly, and the Department of Health-Abu Dhabi outlines clear recommendations for specified individuals to undergo screening for various types of cancers. These recommendations and other vital cancer-related information can be easily accessed via the following link: www.mohap.gove.ae.
The alarming statistics still associated with cancer highlight the fact that despite the progress we’ve made in grappling with this disease, much is yet to be done. However, through strategies such as risk factor modification, early detection through screening, effective and timely treatment regimes, coupled with ongoing evidence-based medical research and practice, we are well on our way to bridging the cancer gap.
With such a positive trajectory, who knows? Hopefully, in the very near future, when one hears the word “cancer,” more positive images of hope, strength, and triumph will come to mind, finally supplanting the former images of fear, gloom, and dread of the past.
— Dr. Kendra Guilford is the Assistant Professor of Public Health and Coordinator, College of Health Sciences, Abu Dhabi University