Cancer is one of the most dreadful but preventable non-communicable diseases. According to estimates by the Indian Council of Medical Research, about 8.8 lakh people will die of cancer annually by 2020. There is no holistic approach towards cancer prevention and treatment in India currently. A cancer diagnosis often leaves a person devastated and worried about the treatment options, the costs and the pain involved. However, it is not just the fear of invasive treatment, disfigurement or the financial burden. The misplaced belief that death will be the ultimate outcome for a cancer patient often makes families opt out of specialised treatment.
There is a need for a well-planned treatment pathway—cancer prevention, early detection, complete medical treatment as advised and post-treatment rehabilitation, not to mention availability, affordability and accessibility of the same. Cancer care in India is yet to fully adopt a preventive approach and still clings to treating the disease mostly when it has reached an advanced stage. For example, obesity, which stems from a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating pattern, is one of the major risk factors for cancer. So are smoking and chewing tobacco. However, such issues are yet to be handled in a more comprehensive manner. Kerala, for instance, has ensured that a good number of cancer cases are detected at an early stage, thanks to timely screening, leading to relatively less mortality from the disease.
While the thought that “is it me?” can be scary, any unusual symptom should be reported. Notice any major changes in the way your body functions or feels and see a doctor immediately, more so if these persist for more than two to three weeks. Make some necessary lifestyle changes such as avoiding the use of tobacco, switching to a healthier diet and regular exercise. Vaccines such as the human papillomavirus and Hepatitis B help lower the risk of cervical and liver cancer, respectively.
Although India already has an extensive registry system for cancer, there is more work to be done to make a difference in the quantity and quality of data collected. Understanding the prevalence of cancer better across geographical locations can help in using them for research and development of better policies for effective cancer prevention. Better public-private partnerships in creating more awareness are also needed to ensure that the message reaches out to a larger audience.
Arming oneself with the right knowledge and utilising it effectively is the key to reducing the mortality associated with cancer. The future of this battle will be between an individual, his/her lifestyle and preventive approaches. It is important that we do not let cancer take us by surprise. The alarming rate at which cancer has spread across the country should initiate a call for action and awareness at the earliest. It must be ingrained in every citizen that only early and timely screening can ensure control and treatment at the appropriate time and prevent mortality. Going by the theme of this year's World Cancer Day—I am and I will—the need of the hour is to understand the condition and risk factors and take timely action.
Maiya is medical director, Portea Medical.