Cancer is a disease of cells in the body. Different parts of the body such as organs, bones, muscles, skin and blood are made up of different specialised cells. All cells have a centre called a nucleus, which contains genes made from DNA. The genes control the functions of the cell.
There are various types of cells in the body and different types of cancer arise from different types of cells. One thing that is common in all types of cancer is that the cancer cells are abnormal and multiply uncontrollably.
Which types of cancer are most commonly found in women?
Cervical cancer is the commonest type of cancer affecting women in India. However, a large number of women are reported to be affected by breast cancer as well. In urban areas, such as Delhi, breast cancer is more common than cervical cancer. There is also an increasing number of lung cancer cases in women.
I am 40 years of age. What health check-up do I need to undergo?
Everyone is required to undergo an annual health check-up. Beside that there are age appropriate tests for cancer screening. Sexually active women should go for a PAP test, once in every two years, for cervical cancer screening. A baseline mammogram should be done between the age of 35-40 years for an average risk person for breast cancer screening, following which, annual mammogram is recommended.
My mother has breast cancer. Will I get it too?
The risk of developing breast cancer, if someone in your family has it, is higher than general population. Ninety per cent of the breast cancers are sporadic. Approximately 10 per cent of breast cancer is genetically inheritable. On an average 10-13 per cent of women develop breast cancer by the age of 90 years. In other words, even though the incidences of breast cancer increases with age, the average risk for a woman of 45 years of age is much higher than a woman of 70 years of age.
What causes breast cancer?
No single factor causes breast cancer. There are many risk factors that can increase the chances of developing breast cancer. Some of them are current age, age at first live birth, age at the starting of menstrual cycles, age at menopause, first degree relatives diagnosed with breast cancer and their age, any previous breast biopsies, especially if they show abnormal cells, etc.
What are inheritable breast cancers?
There are genetic mutations called BRCA1 and BRCA2 which are transmitted through certain families. Prevalence of such mutations is estimated to be about 10 per cent based on western studies. We do not know the exact incidence of such mutations in the Indian population. These mutations are very strongly associated with development of breast and ovarian cancer.
- BRCA 1 carriers have a cumulative breast cancer risk of 60 per cent and ovarian cancer risk of 59 per cent by 70 years of age.
- BRCA 2 carriers have a cumulative breast cancer risk of 55 per cent and ovarian cancer risk of 16 per cent by 70 years of age.
How do I know if I am carrying a BRCA mutation?
Most important factor is a strong family history of more than one close relative being diagnosed with either breast or ovarian cancer and certain other types of cancer. Ideally mapping of family tree is done to understand the risk. Mutations can be tested by a simple blood test. This test is not for everyone and a thorough counselling is required to understand the implications of a positive test.
What can I do to reduce the risk of developing cancer?
Awareness is the key to reduce the risk of developing cancer. Do not ignore symptoms that persist for more than two-three weeks in general. Ask your doctor about the cancer screening tests that you are eligible for and get them done on a regular basis. Eat healthy as consuming a lot of processed food can add to the risk. Try and exercise regularly. Avoid smoking and drinking.