(CNN) — It’s World Cancer Day and the prospects for beating this deadly disease are good and bad.
In the United States, cancer deaths have decreased 33% since 1991, with an estimated 3.8 million lives saved, primarily due to advances in early detection and treatment. Still, ten million people around the world lost their lives to cancer in 2020.
During the last three years, cancer has remained one of the main causes of death in the world; more than covid-19, said Dr. Arif Kamal, chief patient officer for the American Cancer Society.
The symptoms of cancer can resemble those of many other diseases, so it can be difficult to tell the difference between them, experts say. They include signs such as unexplained weight loss or gain, swelling or lumps in the groin, neck, stomach or armpits, and fever and night sweats, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Bladder, bowel, skin and neurological problems can be symptoms of cancer, including changes in hearing and vision, seizures, headaches and unexplained bleeding or bruising, the institute said. But most cancers don’t cause pain at first, so it’s hard to trust that as a sign.
“We tell patients that if they have symptoms that don’t improve after a few weeks, they should see a doctor,” Kamal said. “However, that does not mean that the diagnosis will be cancer.”
Cases in young people are increasing
Rather than waiting for symptoms to appear, the key to keeping cancer at bay is prevention, along with screening to catch the disease in its early stages. That’s the critical factor, experts say, as new cancer cases are on the rise around the world.
A surprising number of new diagnoses are found in people under the age of 50, according to a 2022 review of available research by Harvard University scientists.
Cases of cancer of the breast, colon, esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, liver, pancreas, prostate, stomach, and thyroid have increased in people in their 50s, 40s, and even 30s since the 1990s.
That’s unusual for a disease that typically affects people over the age of 60, Kamal said. “Cancer is generally considered an age-related condition, because you’ve been around long enough to have a kind of genetic rampage.”
Older cells experience decades of wear and tear from environmental toxins and less favorable lifestyle choices, making them prime candidates for a cancerous mutation.
“We thought it takes time for that to happen, but if someone is 35 when they develop cancer, the question is ‘What could have happened?'” Kamal wondered.
No one knows exactly, but smoking, alcohol consumption, air pollution, obesity, lack of physical activity and a diet low in fruits and vegetables are key risk factors for cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Health.
Add them up and you have a possible culprit behind the onset of early cancers, the Harvard researchers said.
“Increased consumption of highly processed or Westernized foods along with changes in lifestyles, environment…and other factors could have contributed to such changes in exposures,” the researchers wrote in their 2022 review.
“You don’t need 65 years of eating crispy, charred or processed meat as your main diet, for example,” Kamal added. “What you need is about 20 years, and then you start to see stomach and colorectal cancers, even at young ages.”
So how do you fight the big C? It starts at age 20, Kamal said.
get family history
Many of the most common cancers, including those of the breast, bowel, stomach, and prostate, have a genetic basis, which means that if a close relative has been diagnosed, you may have inherited a predisposition to developing that cancer as well.
That’s why it’s essential to know your family’s health history. Kamal suggests that young people sit down with their grandparents and other close relatives and ask them about their illnesses, then write them down.
“The average person doesn’t really know the level of granularity that is useful in accessing risk,” he said.
“When I talk to patients, what they say is, ‘Oh yeah, Grandma had cancer.’ There are two questions I want to know: At what age was the cancer diagnosed and what specific type of cancer was it? I need to know if you had cancer at age 30 or 60, because it determines your level of risk. But often they don’t know it.
The same applies to the type of cancer, according to Kamal.
“People often say, ‘Grandma had bone cancer.’ Well, multiple myeloma and osteosarcoma are bone cancers, but both are relatively rare,” he said. “So I don’t think Grandma had bone cancer. I think Grandma had another cancer that went to the bone, and I need to know that.”
Next, the doctors need to know what happened to that relative. Was the cancer aggressive? What was the response to treatment?
“If I hear that mom or grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 and passed away at 41, then I know that cancer is very aggressive and that changes my perception of risk. I may add additional tests that are not in the guidelines for her age,” she stated.
Cancer screening guidelines are based on population-level assessments, not individual risk, Kamal said. So if cancer (or other conditions like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or even migraines) runs in your family, that makes you a special case and requires a personalized plan.
“And I’ll tell you that the entire scientific community is looking at this younger age shift for different types of cancer and wondering, ‘Should the guidelines be more deliberate and intentional about getting younger populations to take some of this advice?’
If your family history is cancer-free, that reduces your risk, but it doesn’t eliminate it. You can lower your chance of cancer by eating a healthy plant-based diet, getting the recommended amount of exercise and sleep, limiting alcohol intake, and not smoking or vaping, experts say.
Protecting yourself from the sun and tanning beds is also key, as the harmful ultraviolet rays damage the DNA of skin cells and are the main risk factor for melanoma. However, skin cancer can appear even where the sun doesn’t shine, Kamal said.
“There has been an increase in melanoma appearing in areas not exposed to the sun, such as the armpit, the genital area, and between the toes,” he said. “So it’s important to check, or have a partner or a dermatologist check the entire body once a year.”
skin review: Take off all your clothing and look carefully at all of your skin, including the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet, between your toes and buttocks, and in your genital area. Use the A, B, C, D, E method to discuss any worrisome points, and then see a specialist if you have questions, the American Academy of Dermatology advised.
Also go to a dermatologist if you have any itching, bleeding or see a mole that looks like an “ugly duckling” and stands out from the rest of the spots on your body.
Get vaccinated if you haven’t: two vaccines protect against cervical and liver cancers, and others are in development for cancers such as melanoma.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood and sexual fluids and can cause liver cancer and cirrhosis, which is a scarred and damaged liver. A series of three shots, beginning at birth, is part of the recommended childhood immunization schedule in the US Unvaccinated adults should check with their doctor to see if they are eligible to receive it.
The HPV vaccine protects against several strains of the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The human papillomavirus can cause deadly cervical cancer, as well as vaginal, anal, and penile cancers. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils.
“These HPV-related head and neck cancers are more aggressive than non-HPV-related cancers,” Kamal said, “so both boys and girls should be vaccinated.”
Since the vaccine’s approval in 2006 in the US for adolescents ages 11 to 13, cervical cancer rates have decreased by 87%. Today, the vaccine can be given up to age 45, the CDC said.
Breast self-exams: Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed worldwide, according to the WHO, followed by lung, colorectal, prostate, skin and stomach cancer.
Both men and women can get breast cancer, so men with a family history should also be aware of the symptoms, experts say. These include pain, redness or irritation, dimpling, thickening or swelling of any part of the breast. New lumps, either in the breast or in the armpit, any pulling on the nipple, and discharge from the nipple other than breast milk are also worrisome symptoms, the CDC said.
Women should do a self-exam once a month and see a doctor if they notice any signs, the National Breast Cancer Association advised. Choose a time when the breasts are less tender and lumpy, which is seven to 10 days after the start of your menstrual flow.
Exams and tests: Home exams and immunizations can save lives, but many types of cancer can only be found through lab tests, CT scans, or biopsies. The American Cancer Society has a list of recommended screening tests by age.
Getting them done in a timely manner increases the chance of early detection and treatment, but it’s the responsibility of each person to know their risk factors, Kamal said.
“Remember, the guidelines are only for people at average risk,” he said. “The only way someone can know if the guidelines apply is by really understanding their family history.”