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Tips for women to self-diagnose symptoms for Cancer

Cancer poses a substantial health challenge globally, and India is no exception. We are observing a steady increase in the prevalence of various types of cancer, primarily influenced by a complex mix of lifestyle choices and environmental factors. As a nation, we are not used to thinking about health management and disease prevention.
While we raise some awareness on lifestyle changes, we forget the idea of primary preventive screening. This could catch cancer in early stage & reduce morbidity and mortality. Around 70% of the population becomes aware of their cancer diagnosis only when it has progressed to advanced stages. A significant percentage of cancer can be cured, if diagnosed at the early stages.

The cases of cancer are also witnessing a gender demarcation now, where cancer cases amongst women are outnumbering men. Amongst the different forms of cancer amongst women, those of breast, cervix, ovary, oral and colorectum are the most common ones. Let us talk about the early signs and symptoms for the three such cancers in women.

Breast Cancer- There's a concerning trend of breast cancer affecting younger women, particularly those under 50. This uptick is attributed to factors like delayed marriages, childbirth, the trend of no children or single child, and lifestyle preferences. The young mothers do not wish to breast feed, we do not educate them on storing breast milk.

While not all early symptoms may signify cancer, it is crucial to remain vigilant and seek medical evaluation if anyone witnesses any of these signs. Any newfound lump or unusual skin area on the breast, which feels distinct from its surroundings, should prompt immediate medical attention. Changes like nipple flattening, or inward turning of the nipple, altered breast skin, and skin peeling, scaling or flaking might also indicate underlying abnormalities requiring medical investigation. Breast health is literally in one’s hands, women should learn breast self-examination and practice it once a month.

A clinical breast examination by a qualified gynaecologist once a year completes the protocol on breast health. A mammogram is not required unless prescribed by the doctor.

Oral Cancer- Oral cancer, encompassing malignancies in the mouth and oral activity, ranks amongst India's top three cancer types, comprising over 30% of all cases. Predominantly affecting lower socioeconomic groups due to their increased tobacco usage, it often evades early detection, leading to poor treatment outcomes. Earlier intervention not only enhances treatment effectiveness, but also reduces financial burdens associated with the prolonged medical care.

One common early symptom of oral cancer is discomfort in the mouth. Usually, people ignore minor soreness or irritation in their mouth, but if the sensations consist for more than three weeks, then medical evaluation is crucial. Issues with swallowing or unusual sensations in the throat, consistent bleeding from the gums, sudden changes in speech, or challenges with mouth opening could also indicate oral cancer. Delaying treatment for oral cancer can lead to more aggressive forms of the disease that are harder to treat and can grow in other parts of the body.

Cervical Cancer- Cervical cancer is on the rise in India, with approximately 3.4 lakh women diagnosed in 2023. This is a very slow growing, even forgiving cancer; but any lesions need attention. These may be caused by rough sex, multiple partners, prolonged or difficult childbirth, lack of or poor genital hygiene.
Early-stage cervical cancer often manifests without symptoms, regular cervical screening is thus a good habit. As the disease progresses, women may observe abnormal vaginal bleeding- occurring between menstrual cycles, post-coital, or post-menopause. Changes in vaginal discharge can serve as an early indicator, however, they can also stem from infections or hormonal fluctuations. Advanced stages may present with lower back or pelvic pain. While hormonal issues can contribute to similar symptoms, persistent conditions signify medical evaluation for prompt intervention. The HPV vaccine is now more available, and its introduction to young boys & girls at pre- pubertal stage can reduce the infection of Human Papilloma virus infection & therefore of cervical cancer.

One has to understand that cancer is nothing, but the transformation of normal or benign cells into malignant ones through a multi-stage process. Hence, early-stage detection can lead to around 85% chances of survival, whereas the chances of survival can become lesser than 30%, if it gets diagnosed after Stage 3. Empowering individuals with increased awareness, facilitating informed decision-making, understanding early signs and symptoms and embracing healthier lifestyle choices can enable people to actively mitigate the risk of various cancer types.

(By Jyotsna Govil, Chairperson of Indian Cancer Society, Delhi Branch)