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What is cancer?

Our body is made up of billions of cells. Normal healthy cells grow and multiply in an orderly, controlled manner. Cancer cells, on the other hand, multiply uncontrollably. They do not function normally and instead form a growth or tumour. These cancerous tumours can spread to nearby tissues and organs as well as to other parts of the body. Cancer kills by:

  • Destroying important organs

  • Disturbing normal body functions

  • Blocking important blood vessels or air passages.

Related: All About Cancer

Not all cancers are the same

Cancer is a group of diseases. There are many types of cancer which can arise from the different types of cells in the body.

Most common type of cancer in Singapore are:

Male Female
Colorectal cancerBreast cancer
Lung cancerColorectal cancer
Prostate cancerLung cancer
Liver cancerOvarian cancer
Nasopharyngial cancer (back of the nose) Endometrial cancer

Source: Trends In Cancer Incidence In Singapore 2002-2006, Singapore Cancer Registry

Related: 4 Key Facts About Cancer In Singapore's Context

Cancer can be prevented

Cancer is not contagious like the flu or chickenpox. You cannot catch cancer from someone who has it.

Many cancers develop because of lifestyle habits such as smoking, excessive drinking of alcohol or eating too much fat (especially animal fat). Others are caused by factors in the environment such as sunlight, radiation and some industrial chemicals. By leading a healthy lifestyle and avoiding certain risk factors, about one-third of all cancers can be prevented from occurring.

Related: Run From Chronic Illnesses

Cancer can be detected early

Many people are afraid of cancer because they think it is a death sentence. In fact, when cancers is detected early, treatment is the most effective. Recognising the early warning signs and going for regular check-ups can save your life.

Lower your risk of cancer by leading a healthy lifestyle

Stay away from cigarettes and cigarette smoke.

Cigarette smoke contains about 40 different cancer-causing substances. Almost all of those who develop lung cancer are smokers. Smoking also causes cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), oesophagus (gullet), stomach, pancreas, kidney and bladder. Even if you don't smoke, breathing in other people's smoke can increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

If you do not smoke, ask any smoker you live or work with to avoid smoking in your presence.

What you can do:

Don't smoke. If you do, then quit.

  • Get your family and friends to support your efforts to quit.

  • Throw away all your cigarettes and lighters.

  • Join a programme or support group that helps smokers to quit.

  • Spend more time with non-smoking friends in smoke-free places.

Related: Quit Smoking Tips

Take more fresh fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and vegetables contain fibre and vitamins which help to reduce your risk of developing colorectal (large intestine) and stomach cancer.

The chemicals used to process food like ham, bacon, luncheon meat may form cancer-causing substances when they are digested. These substances have also been found in salted or preserved food (such as salted fish or pickled vegetables) and may lead to cancer of the stomach and nasopharynx. But you don't have to give up these food items totally. Just eat them less often.

Peanuts, seeds and grains that are not stored properly often become mouldy. Some of these moulds produce substances that can cause liver cancer.

What you can do:

Have some fresh fruit and vegetables at every meal.

  • Choose dark-green leafy vegetables and orange-yellow fruits as these contain greater amounts of vitamins and minerals.

  • Take more fibre by eating wholemeal bread or wholegrain cereals such as brown rice.

  • Avoid salted, pickled, preserved and processed foods, if you can or have them less often.

  • Store nuts in air-tight containers to prevent them from going mouldy.

Related: Learn more about Fruits and Veggies.

Overweight? Exercise regularly and eat less fatty food.

People who are overweight are at risk of developing cancers of the colon, rectum, breast and prostate. To maintain a healthy weight, engage in regular physical activity or sport. Reduce your intake of food high in fat or sugar. Use the BMI Calculator to find out if your weight is in the healthy range.

What you can do:

Aim to stay in the healthy weight range.

  • Engage in physical activity for at least 30 minutes, five times a week.

  • Choose a game or sport that you enjoy and can do with your friends or family.

  • Trim away fat from meat and skin from poultry before cooking.

  • Switch to food low in fat like skimmed milk, reduced fat cheese or low-fat yoghurt.

  • Use low-fat cooking methods like stewing, baking, steaming or boiling instead of deep frying.

  • If you feel the urge to nibble, choose healthier snacks like fresh fruit or wholemeal crackers.

Related: Get Active For A Healthier You

Prevent sunburn and avoid overexposure to the sun.

Frequent sunburn may lead to skin cancer as the ultraviolet rays from the sun damage the skin. Fair-skinned people are more prone to skin cancer.

What you can do:

Avoid overexposure to the sun.

  • Stay in the shade whenever possible. Wear a hat or a cap.

  • Use a sunscreen or sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 on all exposed areas of skin.

Related: Beauty From The Inside

Comply with safety regulations if you are exposed to cancer-causing substances at work.

Always follow the safety regulations as they are meant to protect you.

What you can do:

Take cover behind protective shields or stay in the "safe" area.

  • Remember to wear your personal protective equipment (like gloves, masks or goggles).

  • Learn how to handle the equipment or the chemicals properly. Pay attention to safety drills and know what to do in case of emergencies.

Avoid excessive alcohol if you drink

People who frequently drink large amounts of alcohol are at higher risk to develop liver cancer. They are also at risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat and oesophagus (gullet).

What you can do:

If you drink, limit yourself to not more than two standard drinks a day. One standard drink is roughly equal to:

  • One can of beer (285 ml)

  • One glass of wine (120 ml)

  • One measure of spirits (30 ml)

Alternate your drinks with non-alcoholic ones. Drink them slowly so they last longer.

Related: Set Your Drinking Limits

Look out for these early warning signs and let your doctor know.

Notice any unusual lumps, sores, moles or bleeding?

What you can do:

Be on the alert for:

  • A lump (which may not be painful) in the breast, neck, armpit, groin or anywhere else on your body.

  • A sore or an ulcer anywhere on the body, including the mouth, which does not heal properly.

  • Recent changes in the size, shape or colour of a mole on the skin.

  • Abnormal bleeding from the nose or any other part of the body, and blood in the stools.

Constant cough, hoarseness, indigestion, weight loss, diarrhoea or constipation?

Pay attention to problems that won't go away or get better, like a persistent cough (with or without phlegm), hoarseness of voice, indigestion or discomfort, loss of weight for no reason, a change in bowel habits (such as persistent diarrhoea or constipation).

What you can do:

Tell your doctor about it right away. He can examine you and do some tests to find out if your problem is serious.

Early detection may save your life.

Related: Self Care And Self Medication

Go for regular mammography

The risk of breast cancer for women increases with age. Women between the ages of 50 and 69 are encouraged to go for mammography (breast X-ray) once every 2 years and women aged 40 to 49 years old should go for mammography once every year. Besides going for regular mammography, carry out monthly breast self-examination to check for any breast changes.

What you can do:

  • Learn how to do breast self examination properly and then do BSE one week after your menstrual period every month. Check for any breast changes.

  • Make an appointment for mammography once every two years if you are between 50 to 69 years old. Women over 40 years old should go for mammography once a year.

  • Ask your doctor about mammograms if you are over 40 years of age.

Related: Screen For Cancer Before It's Too Late

Regular Pap smears

A Pap smear test is a simple and quick test that detects cervical cancer at an early stage when it has a good chance of cure. A woman should go for regular Pap smears once she becomes sexually active.

What you can do:

  • Go for a Pap smear once every three years.

  • If you have any of the following, see your doctor immediately:

    • Vaginal bleeding after sexual intercourse
    • Irregular bleeding between menstrual periods or after menopause
    • ​Foul-smelling vaginal discharge

Related: Screening FAQs: Cervical Cancer and Pap Smear

Speak to your doctor about your personal and family medical history. Certain medical conditions may increase your risk of developing some cancers. For example, people who are carriers of the Hepatitis B virus are more likely to develop liver cancer. Women infected with certain sexually transmitted infections have a higher chance of getting cervical cancer.

Your doctor can advise you how to prevent such conditions. But if you already have them, he can tell you what steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cancer.

Some cancers (like breast and colorectal cancers) tend to run in families. If your parents, brothers or sisters have had cancer, discuss it with your doctor. He may recommend some screening tests to help determine your risk of developing the same cancer.

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