Around 1.45 million people in India are diagnosed with cancers each year, with the leading sites being breast and cervix in women and lung and mouth cavity in men.
Cancer cases in India are shooting up, not just because life expectancy has increased by more than a decade in 15 years -from 57.9 years in 1990 to 68.3 years in 2015 – but also because of tectonic shift in the way we live our lives.Tobacco and alcohol use, processed food and diets low fresh food and vegetables, air pollution, inactivity and obesity are among the primary triggers, which have made non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) like heart diseases, cancers and stroke account for 61% of all deaths in India, up from 37.9% in 1990.
Around 1.45 million people in India are diagnosed with cancers each year, with the leading sites being breast and cervix in women and lung and mouth cavity in men . By 2020, cancer cases are projected to cross 1.73 million.
“A research analysis in 2016 investigated the links between nutrition and development of 16 different types of cancers, including breast, lung, esophageal, gastric, renal and prostrate, ” said CSE’s new report, Body Burden: Lifestyle Diseases. Processed foods that contain little or no proteins, vitamins or minerals, and are high in processed salt, sugar, fats and energy (calories) push up cancer risk by up to 30% in developed countries and 20% in the developing world, said the report.
Being overweight or obese is linked with at least a dozen cancers, including cancer of the endometrium (lining of the uterus), esophagus (esophageal adenocarcinoma), stomach (gasttic cardia cancer, liver, kidneys, multiple myeloma, meningioma, bowels (colorectal), gallbladder, breast, overies and thyroid.
“Obesity is also associated with a higher risk of cancer of the food pipe, as it leads to acid from the stomach reaching the lower end of the food pipe, says Dr Ashish Bakshi, medical oncologist at the city’s Dr L H Hiranandani Hospital.
With obesity doubling in India between 2005 and 2015– 20.7% of women and 18.6% of men are obese, shows National Family Health Survey-4 data released earlier this year – there’s a cancer epidemic waiting to happen.
A healthy lifestyle includes having five servings (500 gm) of vegetables and fruits a day, exercising regularly for 45 min every day, limiting alcohol use and quitting tobacco use. “It has been observed that a diet of fruits and vegetables not only decreases the risk to colon cancer, but also plays a protective role,” says Dr T Sundararaman, dean at the School of Health Systems Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
“Eating processed meat such as sausages, cold cuts, salami, hot dogs, bacon, ham, smoked and dried meat raises the risk of colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers,” says Dr Mehboob Basade, medical oncologist at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre. This is due to the preservatives, and salting and fermenting agents added to it, which are indirect carcinogens.
Environmental factors such as chronic exposure to chemicals and pollution also plays a role, with metals, pesticides, dyes, persistent organic pollutants, pharmaceuticals, chlorinated solvents and drinking water disinfectants causing toxicities that lead to malignancies. Commonly used household chemicals and cosmetics — asbestos, nickel, cadmium, radon, vinyl chloride, benzidene, and benzene – also contain cancer-causing compounds.
“All of these are cancer-related high risks and can act as a trigger, but the fact is that close to 60% of cancers in India are preventable,” Dr PK Julka, former head of radiation oncology department, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). “Around 40% cancers in India are caused by tobacco use and another 20% are from infections such as hepatitis B that causes liver cancer and HPV that causes cervical cancer. Cancer risk can be significantly reduced by stopping tobacco use, getting vaccinated and adopting a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr Julka.
“I have had people as young as 20 come in with oral cancer,” says Dr Basade. “This is due to the tobacco-chewing habit, which is a common cause of cancer. Even 25 years after quitting tobacco use, former users have a 4% higher risk of cancer.”
Geography and occupation can also increase an individual’s risk of developing cancer. “Prolonged exposure to radiation from nuclear power projects, accidents in laboratories that cause radiation leaks, or even radiation from items in the trash put people working or living in these areas at higher risk,” says Dr Sundararaman.
No direct link has been established between electromagnetic field radiations emitted from cellphones and cellular towers and cancer yet, ICMR experts, who are conducting an India-specific study to assess the health impact of cellphone use, say one should err on the side of caution. “No definitive link between cancer and RF radiation has been established, we advise people to use cellphones when absolutely necessary and use of headphones/earbuds while taking calls,” said a researcher at ICMR, requesting anonymity.
A healthy lifestyle has to go hand-in-hand with a good diet to lower your risk, doctors say. “There is no excuse for smoking or drinking. You cannot say that I exercise, so it is okay for me to drink,” says Dr Basade.