What a doctor would say when asked 'I don't smoke or drink, why did I get cancer'

Use of banned pesticides, inadequate consumer awareness and increasing pollution can all cause the dreaded disease.

 |  5-minute read |   04-12-2017
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Smoking causes cancer, as doctors, popular wisdom, cinema hall advertisements and even cigarette packets tell us, loud and clear, with pictorial warnings 75 per cent the packet size.

While how much of a deterrent the message has been is open to debate, the converse is often believed. People who don’t consume tobacco, eat well and generally live healthy tend to assume that they are safe from cancer, and sometimes go lax on regular medical check-ups and following up of suspicious symptoms.

However, as oncologists the world over say, cancer can strike anyone at any time, even if you have lived a perfectly healthy life.

So what is it that makes us so vulnerable to the deadly illness and what can be done to prevent it?

A study from Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, USA, has found that “two-thirds of all adult cancer incidences can be attributed to random gene mutations that drive tumour growth”.

This is beyond human control, and there are not many preventive measures to help this. However, we are also at risk because of many man-made factors.

The food we eat

According to an article by an oncologist in The Better India, the food Indians consume is contaminated with a variety of carcinogens – mycotoxins, microbial contamination, veterinary drug residues, heavy metals, unauthorised food additives, product composition and pesticide residues.  

Several pesticides contain chemicals known to cause cancer. After they are sprayed on crops to kill insects, they find their way on to our plates as residue in the harvested food product. The chemicals kill beneficial bacteria in the digestive system and wreak havoc on our immune system.

Also, pesticides found too dangerous for use in other countries are still being used in India. According to a United Nations Industrial Development Organisation report, India ranks among the top in agri-food rejects to the US and EU. In December 2016, the Centre told the Delhi High Court that it would continue to allow the use of 51 out of the 67 pesticides that have been banned world over.

Malwa in Punjab, knows as the state’s cotton belt, uses a very high amount of pesticides, and is known for a high incidence of cancer. Photo: ReutersMalwa in Punjab, knows as the state’s cotton belt, uses a very high amount of pesticides, and is known for a high incidence of cancer. Photo: Reuters

Among the 260 pesticides in use in India, 56 are carcinogenic and banned in other countries. 

India was among the few countries to resist a ban on Endosulfan, which most of the world had stopped using, despite reports that it was responsible for effects such as neurotoxicity, late sexual maturity, physical deformities, poisoning and cancer in Kerala, where it is widely used.   

In May last year, there were reports that 84 per cent of bread and bakery samples collected from Delhi contained residues of food additives such as potassium bromate, potassium iodate or both, which can cause cancer.

Malwa in Punjab, known as the state’s cotton belt, uses very high amounts of pesticides, and is known for a high incidence of cancer. 

The water we drink

Discharge of industrial effluents into water bodies and using up ground water at a faster rate than it can replenish itself leads to a high level of arsenic and other harmful substances in the water we consume.

Grains such as rice soak up arsenic quickly, and exposure to it in low doses over the years can lead to cancer.

According to a report, arsenic concentration is high in and around the Ganges delta, including Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Chhattisgarh.

As per a recent report, the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan in Patna, a charitable hospital thronged by poorer patients, gets between 60 and 100 patients every day.  

Punjab has also suffered from an increasing number of cancer cases as the water is polluted from the overuse of pesticides in the fields.

Arsenic content in water has been behind rising incidence of cancer in Bihar. Photo: ReutersArsenic content in water has been behind rising incidence of cancer in Bihar. Photo: Reuters

The air we breathe

Air pollution ruins our lungs, but it has been linked to more than just lung cancer.

According to an India Today report, researchers have found that “air pollution represents a complex mixture of a broad range of carcinogenic and mutagenic substances that may play a role in chronic systemic inflammation, oxidative stress and DNA damage in tissues that could ultimately prove fatal.”

“This research suggests that air pollution was not associated with death from most non-lung cancers, but the associations with kidney, bladder and colorectal cancer deserve further investigation,” the report quotes the lead author Michelle Turner, researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal) in Spain, as saying.

As pollution levels rose in Delhi recently, a report in The Guardian stated that the air had “heavy metals and other carcinogens at levels more than 30 times World Health Organization limits, conditions likened by medics to smoking at least 50 cigarettes in a day”.

The same report quotes a doctor as saying that the pollution in Delhi is changing “the demographics of cancer in the city”, and while earlier, “about 90% of the lung cancer patients he saw were smokers in their 50s or 60s, more patients now were non-smokers in their 40s or even 30s”.

What we can do

The reasons banned pesticides continue to be used in India and food companies are lax with safety standards are a lack of awareness about their ill-effects and the absence of a strong consumer rights culture.   

Farmers are often unaware of the safe limits of using pesticides and fertilisers, and end up putting more than required in the hope of a better yield.

Tackling air and water pollution too needs increased awareness among ordinary citizens, apart from government-level initiatives.   

Another important factor to keep in mind is regular medical check-ups and not ignoring any unusual symptoms in the body, as early detection significantly boosts the chance of cancer cure.

According to a report, some of the symptoms – apart from a tumour – to be kept in mind are a persistent cough, change in bowel habits, unexplained pains, change in the appearance of a mole, sudden weight loss, unexplained bleeding, difficulty in swallowing, and a sore that refuses to heal.   

Watch your weight

According to a recent study in The Lancet, almost 8,00,000 cancers can be attributed to diabetes and high BMI. It suggests 422 million adults have diabetes and 2.01 billion adults are overweight or obese, globally. The least we can do is maintain healthy blood sugar levels and ensure obesity doesn't eat away our best years.

While nothing guarantees immunity from cancer, there is a lot that needs to be done both by the government and by citizen organisations in India to prevent precious lives from being lost to this deadly disease.

Also read: Could a timely warning have saved fishermen's lives in Cyclone Ockhi?

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