Cancer | chronic diseases | cancer treatment

All You Need to Know About Cancer | Dr. Sulochana Gavande

All You Need to Know About Cancer

Here’s a lowdown on the dreaded disease and the current treatment processes. Did you know that cancer is an ancient disease with the earliest evidence of bone cancer found in Egyptian mummies?

The word cancer triggers an instant reaction of terror and misunderstanding amongst devastated patients and their families and the anxious and curious general population. This article focuses on busting some myths and offers real, practical information about this disease to help people understand more about it and learn how to deal with a challenging situation.

What exactly is cancer?

The human body is made of trillions of cells and each one has a nucleus, which is the control centre containing 23 pairs of chromosomes. The genes located on these chromosomes guide the cell about what to do when to do it, and for how long. These orders also include information on how the cell should destroy itself when it is time for it to die, or if something goes wrong.

When the genes are injured, it leads to changes called mutations. In mutated genes, instructions are misplaced, or not transmitted in the right manner, which can sometimes lead the cell to form an abnormal growth – what we call a tumor. A few cells from this growing mass travel through lymphatic fluid and blood to other organs in the body and begin to multiply there. This disease is called cancer. The whole process can usually take several years before the growth and symptoms of cancer are detected.

The first and earliest modern method to treat cancer was surgery. Since then, there has been much progress in science and technology; today, it is possible for surgeons to perform complex and prolonged procedures even for deep-seated tumours.

Cancer diagnosis and treatment today

The first step in cancer diagnosis is to remove and examine a part of the tumour. A biopsy confirms if the cells are cancerous and how much they have changed compared to the non-cancerous cells. This is followed by other tests such as CT scans or biomarkers. The size of the tumour, the characteristics of the cells and the extent of its spread to other parts of the body help determine the grade of the disease. This information allows doctors to plan the correct course of treatment for each patient.

Non-surgical treatment options

Toxic substances are administered intravenously into the bloodstream or taken orally. The goal is to kill the rapidly dividing cancer cells that have spread in the body. However, these drugs may damage normal cells that are dividing in a routine manner, such as in the intestine, blood and mouth, leading to many side effects. It is important to take care of the patient per the doctor’s advice.


X-rays are aimed directly at the cancerous tumour to damage and destroy the DNA of the cells. Normal cells caught in the X-ray beam may also be injured, leading to radiation-related side effects.

Anti-hormone therapy

Anti-hormone therapy is used effectively to control cancers of the breast and prostate. Today’s medical advances can sometimes help detect which specific mutation(s) have caused the cells to become cancerous. If correctly identified, then medicines can be directly targeted to these mutations.


Immunotherapy is a type of treatment in which our body’s immune system or natural defences are strengthened to counteract cancer. Its objectives are the same as chemotherapy: inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and preventing them from spreading elsewhere in the body. But immunotherapy makes use of biological substances that are natural to our bodies, unlike chemotherapy, which involves the use of external toxic drugs.

Immunotherapy drugs are comparatively new with limited experience. The side effects are different and usually manageable. The results are quite encouraging with good outcomes in the skin, kidney, lung, and other cancers.

Prevention is better than cure

Despite the tremendous progress in the knowledge and treatment of cancer, it remains a serious, life-threatening disorder. Unfortunately, most people’s cancer is detected late – and even the best treatments end up being futile.

Why do people get such a horrible disease? Our lifestyle today has changed significantly, and we are beginning to see some new types of cancer that didn’t exist earlier. Developing countries report a higher incidence of cancer. It is now more apparent that in 50-70% of these cases, cancer is caused not due to genetic reasons but as a result of new habits and ways of life.

Some lifestyle habits that can play a role in cancer include:

Tobacco use

Cigarettes, bidi, snuff, and chewing tobacco accounted for about 10 crore cancer deaths in the last century.

Alcohol consumption

The main ingredient in Western liquor is ethanol, which when consumed converts into the toxic chemical acetaldehyde, which impacts genes directly. Alcoholic drinks often contain many other toxic carcinogens as well. Alcoholism impairs a person’s metabolism and affects one’s nutritional state. People drinking a significant amount of alcohol regularly often develop a vitamin deficiency, and their immune system begins to weaken.

Ethanol in alcohol damages the liver, leading to inflammation and cirrhosis – conditions likely to progress into liver cancer. Studies of cancer statistics show that cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, intestines, and liver are more common in alcoholics. Alcohol addiction, if accompanied by tobacco use, significantly raises the risk of cancer.

Lifestyle-induced obesity

Obesity has already been proven to result in diabetes and heart disease. In the last fifteen years, scientists have established with certainty that the incidence of cancer is also higher in obese individuals.

As a person puts on weight, the number of fat cells in their body increases. These cells produce many types of proteins, especially estrogen and other hormone-like growth factors. The scientific argument is that these proteins travel through blood to reach various organs, such as the ovaries, kidneys, and pancreas, and stimulate the cells there to reproduce, and may induce other potentially harmful changes. These events likely promote the development of cancer.

There are many other cancer-causing substances or carcinogens such as radiation, air pollution and some industrial chemicals. There could also be more carcinogens that are not yet fully recognised. We must be wary of this and use new materials and technology with caution.

It is wiser to try to prevent a crisis before it occurs than to solve it afterwards. Hence, it is prudent to try to keep cancer at bay using the knowledge we currently have. We can certainly choose a healthy, addiction-free lifestyle and try to reduce our dependence on destiny to prevent the occurrence of cancer.

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Dr. Sulochana Gavande

The author is a cancer researcher and has written the book ‘Cancer: Information and Experience’.

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