Cancer in the younger generation
25 August 2020
Cancer was the second highest cause of death in the world in 2018 and Malaysia alone recorded 16,000 deaths that year due to the disease.
The Malaysian National Cancer Registration Report (MNCRR) 2012-2016 showed that there was an increase in the number of new cases detected during the period; 115,238 cases compared to 103,507 for the period 2007-2011.
During the same period, the top 10 types of cancer detected among Malaysians are breast, colorectal, lung, lymphoma, nasopharynx, leukaemia, prostate, liver, cervix and ovaries.
In recent years, we have heard of more young people suffering from cancer and this is very worrying considering that cancer among young people are detected in the late stages, said Sunway Medical Centre Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Dr Aqilah Othman.
Individuals under the age of 50 can be categorised as young but the real cause of the increase in numbers cannot be ascertained, although it can happen due to various factors.
This includes inherited genetic factors and unhealthy lifestyle choices such as lack of exercise, unhealthy food intake, smoking and so on. However, cancer among young people is not solely due to genetic factors.
“The first thing a doctor will check is family history and the probability of genetic factors especially if the individual is below the age of 40. But, the fact is that less than 10% of cancer cases are caused by inherited genetic mutations.
“We still do not know the main cause of cancer spreading among young people other than genetic factors but lifestyle is most likely playing an important role,” Dr Aqilah said.
The awareness on the importance of early screening to prevent cancer is still low among Malaysians, causing the number of cases to increase every year. The attitude of taking it easy and assuming that cancer will not strike at a young age should be cast out because cancer can strike regardless of age.
“There are also a group of people who delay early screening and treatment because they assume their symptoms would subside on their own or through alternative methods. Hence, it is very important to know your own body.
“If you feel something is wrong such as experiencing constant fever for more than four weeks or discovering a lump, it is best to go to the hospital immediately. Your condition will only become more serious if the signs are ignored and that is why awareness about cancer is very important,” Dr Aqilah said.
The lack of awareness is also caused by the busy lifestyle lead by society today; to the point where they are neglecting themselves. This includes unhealthy eating habits and using delivery services as it is faster and easier.
“Many do not want to walk or climb the stairs, let alone exercise regularly. In my opinion, awareness of a healthy lifestyle is one of the main things that needs to be given attention. It not only reduces the risk of cancer but also various other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes that can endanger a person’s health and life,” Dr Aqilah said.
There are a handful of patients who are diagnosed with early stage cancer who believe in alternative treatments compared to modern medicine. This can worsen the patient’s condition because when alternative medicine is not successful, the patient will return to the hospital in critical condition when the cancer has grown or spread to other parts of the body.
These patients may also experience impaired liver and kidney function due to taking alternative medication hence limiting the treatment that can be given to restore the patient’s condition. When this situation occurs, the patient’s chance of recovery becomes scant and that is why early treatment is important after one is diagnosed with the disease.
“Some patients do not want to undergo immediate treatment and are afraid of hearing the words surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and want to try alternative treatments first. In fact, this action is harmful because cancer can spread quickly, especially if not monitored,” Dr Aqilah said.
“These patients will then come to the hospital in poor condition when this can actually be prevented. Early cancer treatment is important to prevent it from spreading and when treated early, the percentage of recovery is high for early stage cancer. In the late stages, optimal treatment can improve the quality of life and survival,” she added.
Patients should not be afraid of treatment because there are various methods to treat patients specifically for their disease. The patient and their family’s needs are also taken into account.
“Cancer varies to the individual even if they may have the same cancer type. Age, chronic disease, lifestyle and genetics play a role in deciding the best treatment for the individual.
“Each patient’s journey is not the same. Most side effects feared and touted by society will not necessarily happen. In fact, if it does happen, it is temporary depending on the type of treatment.
“For that reason, do not believe easily what you read on the Internet or advertised by unqualified parties. When in doubt, discuss honestly with your oncologist before making a decision,” Dr Aqilah said.
An effective method to increase the recovery rate is to recognise the signs of cancer, reduce the risk, undergo regular screening tests, and seek early treatment once detected.
To prevent cancer at a young age, Dr Aqilah suggests leading a healthy lifestyle including exercising and maintaining an ideal weight, and abandoning bad habits such as eating fast food and smoking. Most importantly, each of us need to be aware of any changes we experience in our bodies.
Regular screening can detect cancer at an early stage or before abnormal cells turn into cancer. The probability of a full recovery is higher if cancer is detected and treated at an early stage.