Care of Cancer
Cancer has overtaken HIV / AIDS and malaria to top the list of headaches for medical departments and policy makers alike. In 2012, cancer claimed a massive 8.2 million lives, with breast, colorectal, stomach, lung, and liver cancers accounting for more than three-quarters of these. Alcohol and tobacco use, lack of physical activity, low vegetable and fruit intake, and high body mass index have been found to be responsible for a significant 30% of cancer deaths, with tobacco use causing 70% of the 1.59 million global lung cancer deaths reported in 2012. Metastasis, the process occasioned or characterized by unusual growth of abnormal cells, which end up invading adjacent parts, eventually extending to neighboring organs, is the mainspring of death from cancer. The World Health Organization projects that annual cancer cases will hit 22 million by the year 2020, but maintains that mortality can be reduced if cases are diagnosed, and treated early. However, the high levels of ignorance among the public, and the fact that most people consider ‘cancer’ a taboo subject present significant obstacles to the fight against cancer. It is time we took initiative and fed the public with the right information regarding the causes, development, and complications of cancer, as well as the available treatments, and the undesirable effects of such treatments.
Diagnosis and Staging of Cancer
Cancer diagnosis begins with a physical examination and a review of the medical history of the individual, especially the history of symptoms. Caregivers will often order an electrolyte- level or a complete blood count, and in some cases, a blood study such as the prostate specific antigen test (NCI, n.d.). Such imaging studies as ultrasounds, MRI scans, CT, and X-rays are key tools used by physicians to detect abnormalities, including cancer, in the body (NCI, n.d.). Alternatively, physicians can use endoscopy tests to visualize cancerous tissues in the bronchi, throat, and intestinal tract (Schrevens et al., 2004). However, for lymph nodes, as well as the inside of bones, whereby proper visualization could be problematic; radionuclide scanning, a test that involves injecting a weak radioactive substance, whose concentration increases when in contact with abnormal tissue could be used (Schrevens et al., 2004). Once abnormalities have been located, the physician extracts and examines the tissue sample obtained from the localized area, in a procedure referred to as a biopsy (Schrevens et al., 2004).
If the examined tissues are found to be cancerous, the physician embarks on the staging process to determine the amount of cancer there is in the body, and its exact location (NCI, n.d.). Staging enables a physician to choose the best possible treatment and predict the course that the cancer is likely to take; for instance, breast cancer in the early stages can be treated through radiation and surgery; whereas chemotherapy would be effective for an advanced stage of the same (Schrevens et al., 2004). The TNM system is the most widely-used staging system around the world. In this system, every cancer is allocated a value, which could either be a number or letter describing the metastases, node; where T. stands for tumor, and assesses its extent; N. stands for nodes, and helps in the assessment of cancer’s spread to lymph nodes closer by; and M. denotes metastasis, and aids in assessing whether the disease has reached other parts and organs. The T, N, and M. figures range from 1 to 4, with larger numbers indicating a larger, more extensive tumor (NCI, n.d.). T0, N0, and M0 indicate that the cancer has not spread to neighboring lymph nodes, or to other parts of the body (NCI, n.d.).
However, not all cancers are staged using the TNM system; spinal cord and brain cancers are staged using their grades and cell types; lymphomas are staged using the Ann Arbor classification; and cervical, uterine, ovarian, and vaginal cancers are staged using FIGO (NCI, n.d.).
Complications of Cancer
Chemical Changes in the Body: cancer interferes with the normal chemical balance in the body, increasing the risk of serious complications. Confusion, constipation, frequent urination, and excessive thirst are some of the symptoms of chemical imbalances common to cancer patients (Epstein et al., 2012).
Problems of the Brain and the Nervous System: cancer exerts undue pressure on the nearby nerves, causing loss of function and visceral, somatic, or neuropathic pain on one side of the body (Epstein et al., 2012). Cancers touching on the brain often cause stroke-like symptoms and headaches ranging from mild to severe (Epstein et al., 2012).
Seizures and Difficulty Walking: the body would often react to cancer, like it would in the case of any other disease; however, cancer patients sometimes have unusual immune system reactions referred to as paraneoplastic syndromes, where the body reacts by attacking healthy cells, leading to such symptoms as seizures (Epstein et al., 2012).
Metastasis: this refers to the spread of cancerous cells through the lymphatic system, to other organs of the body (NCI, n.d.). This is a dangerous complication, responsible for most of the cancer deaths, because it makes treatment difficult, and reduces an individual’s chances of recovering fully (NCI, n.d.).
Available Cancer Treatments
There are various methods of treating cancer; the method chosen depends on the type of cancer, as well as on the stage of the cancer.
Surgery: a procedure of surgery is conducted to isolate, and remove the cancer, especially if it has not spread to other body parts and organs (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010). Surgery offers the greatest chance of cure, because it is only used if the cancer has not spread.
Chemotherapy: this is where drugs or medicine are used to treat cancer (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010). Chemotherapy could be administered orally (as a tablet), or through intravenous injections lasting anywhere between several hours, and several days (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010).
Radiation Therapy: this is the use of high-energy waves or particles to damage or destroy cancer cells (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010).
Targeted Therapy: this is a newer type of cancer treatment regimen that uses drug substances to precisely identify cancer cells, and attack only these, while doing very minimal damage to unaffected cells (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010).
Immunotherapy: this kind of treatment makes use of an individual’s immune system by either training it to attack cancer cells specifically, or boosting it in a general way (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010). However, this treatment method has been overshadowed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Hyperthermia: this method uses heat to attack, and disintegrate cancer cells. Although the idea of making use of heat in cancer treatment is not entirely new, early hyperthermia attempts yielded mixed results. However, more efficient tools have been developed, and hyperthermia is under scrutiny for utilization against various cancer types (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010).
Stem Cell Transplants: in this case, bone marrow and peripheral blood transplants are used to clear cancer cells, and replace them with non-cancerous tissues (Kelvin & Tyson, 2010).
Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
Although they may totally rid a patient off cancer, cancer treatment solutions produce serious side effects, which can have a considerable impact on an individual’s quality of life. Radiation therapy, for instance, causes a number of short-time side effects, including skin irritation, throat pain, and hoarseness (Epstein et al., 2012). The long-term effects of the same are even more serious; for instance, radiation could occasion oral cavity damage to the jawbone and the salivary glands, leaving patients with permanent jaw pains and cavities, and “a chronically dry mouth” (Epstein et al., 2012).
Chemotherapy too leaves in its wake several undesirable side effects, the most common of which are a weak immune system, nausea, and hair loss (Epstein et al., 2012).
Cancer patients naturally experience psychological issues, sadness, and anxiety in response to diagnosis and treatment; and may, in that regard, be at an increased risk of suicide (Epstein et al., 2012). The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that cancer patients are 2-10 times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population.
Methods of Lessening the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment
Methods of lessening the undesirable effects of cancer treatment could be behavioral or even clinical. Some of the behavioral elements that a patient can embrace to protect their heath during cancer treatment include eating a healthy, balanced diet; allowing themselves adequate time to rest; and seeking expert advice before using any chemicals, soaps, or lotions on the skin in the treatment area (Redd, Montgomery & DuHamel, 2001).
Radio-protective drugs are a clinical method of lessening the side effects of cancer care (Redd, Montgomery & DuHamel, 2001). These drugs are advanced before radiation therapy to protect the normal tissues around the treatment area. Amifostine is the most commonly-used radioactive drug used to protect head and neck cancer patients from the mouth problems caused by radiation treatment (Redd, Montgomery & DuHamel, 2001).
Other behavioral techniques that doctors use to lessen the undesirable effects (particularly those that happen to be aversive) of cancer treatment include; i) contingency management — advancing “rewards to increase the patient’s adherence to the treatment regimen” (Redd, Montgomery & DuHamel, 2001, p. 811); ii) cognitive destruction — blocking the patient’s aversive stimuli by engaging them in absorbing and more interesting activities during the treatment procedure; iii) relaxation training – teaching the patient to identify a relaxation state which is scientifically thought to lessen pain during the treatment procedure; and iv) systematic desensitization — altering a patient’s aversive stimuli by “gradually introducing feared stimuli/events in a hierarchical manner, beginning with the least feared stimuli” (Redd, Montgomery & DuHamel, 2001, p. 812).
Cancer has become not only a serious health concern, but also a leading cause of death across the world. For instance, it is important to note that in 2012, cancer claimed 8.2 million lives. WHO projects that the rising trend will continue over the next decade. There is a lot of misinformation, particularly on the causes and treatment of cancer. This misinformation has been responsible for most deaths as it makes people shy away from early diagnosis, only seeking treatment when cancer has reached advanced levels. Cancer patients face many psychological and physical side effects of care, but there are methods of reducing the extent of the same. Of even more significance is that cancer can be totally cured if it is diagnosed and treated early.
Epstein, J.B., Thariat, J., Bensadoun, R.J., Barasch, A., Murphy, B.A., Kolnick, L., Popplewell, L. & Maghami, E. (2012). Oral Complications of Cancer and Cancer Therapy: from Cancer Treatment to Survivorship. CA Cancer J. Clin, 62(6), 400-422.
Kelvin, J.F. & Tyson, L. (2010). 100 Questions and Answers about Cancer Symptoms and Cancer Treatment Side Effects (2nd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
NCI. (n.d.). Cancer Staging. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 8 July 2014 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/staging
Redd, W.H., Montgomery, G.H. & DuHamel, K.N. (2001). Behavioral Interventions for Cancer Treatment Side Effects. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 93(11), 810-823.
Schrevens, L., Lorent, N., Dooms, C. & Vansteenkiste, J. (2004). The Role of PET Scan in Diagnosis, Staging, and Management of Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. The Oncologist, 9(6), 633-643.
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