Cancer is on the rise. Australia has the highest rate of cancer in the world for both men and women with one in two receiving a cancer diagnosis by the age of 85.
However, despite this increase, survival rates have improved by nearly 25% over the last 30 years thanks to new treatments, research, screening and increased awareness of cancer prevention. But there is still a way to go. Around 40% of cancers diagnosed in Australia are preventable.
Monday 4 February is World Cancer Day, an international day to raise cancer awareness and encourage its prevention, detection and treatment.
The specialists searching for answers
Thanks to national screening programs and campaigns, many of us are aware of the risks and signs of cancers like breast, skin and bowel cancer. Not all cancers show early signs however. And in many cases, early detection saves lives.
Patient care at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse is underpinned by a thriving research program that ensures access to the latest in cancer prevention. Here are just some of the new treatments and areas of research offering hope to people with cancer.
An innovative approach
Ovarian cancer is rare, deadly and hard to detect. The symptoms can be similar to those of other common illnesses. And many women don’t have any symptoms in the early stages, meaning that the cancer has already advanced by the time it is detected.
Because of this, recurrence is very common with around 70% of women having their cancer return.
Dr Rhonda Farrell, deputy director of gynae-oncology, is conducting her PhD in a new technique that combines radical surgery with an innovative, alternative way to deliver chemotherapy, known as HIPEC. Chemotherapy is usually delivered intravenously, or occasionally it can be taken as a pill. Instead, HIPEC delivers the drug directly into the abdomen, coming into direct contact with the cancer within the abdominal cavity. This is performed at the same time as the surgery to remove the tumours.
There are promising early signs accompanying this new treatment which has the potential to reduce recurrence and increase survival.
Looking for a new cause
Even though tobacco smoking has been on the decline since the 1990’s, the rate of tongue cancer, commonly caused by smoking, has been rising steadily. Alarmingly, we’ve seen the rate in young people double over the past five years, particularly in young and otherwise healthy, active women. There is no obvious explanation for this trend which is happening on a global scale.
Head and neck surgeon Prof Jonathan Clark is keen to find a cause. He and his team are conducting research based on a theory that there may be a viral cause, similar to HPV – a known cause of tonsil cancer. The team is looking into differences in genetic mutations between older and younger patients because viruses integrate into the DNA of cancer cells, resulting in cancer-causing mutations.
Prof Clark hopes that if the cause if found to be viral the research could even result in a vaccine.
Nipping it in the bud
Almost everyone experiences heartburn at some point but if it happens more than twice a week it is considered gastro-oesophageal reflux disease or GORD. Around 20% of the population suffers from GORD. Over time, this can turn into a common pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett’s Oesophagus.
Although relatively common, Barrett’s Oesophagus is not widely known about. If untreated it can develop into oesophageal cancer. However, if detected and treated early, it has a 90% cure rate.
Gastroenterologist A/Prof Payal Saxena is one of the first specialists in Sydney to use a minimally invasive treatment known as radiofrequency ablation that prevents the disease from developing into cancer.
In a continuous search for improvements, she is running a clinical trial of a new device for the treatment that will bring the cost down for patients and promises to be safe and equally effective.
Lifestyle as a factor
Around 40% of cancers diagnosed in Australia are preventable. Thanks to government campaigns the public is aware of the role smoking and sun exposure play in cancer risk. Less emphasis has been placed on diet, nutrition and exercise.
Every ten years the World Cancer Research Fund releases its expert report on diet, nutrition, exercise and cancer which is the largest synthesis of evidence-based cancer prevention research from across the globe. It is the best-available evidence on how the impact lifestyle choices have on our risk of developing cancer.
The 2018 report includes key recommendations to lower cancer risk including being physically active, limiting sugary drinks, alcohol and red and processed meat and eating wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans. It investigates questions like whether the amount of time we spend on screens contributes to our risk or if dietary supplements can reduce our risk.
The Lifehouse LivingRoom offers supportive cancer care and integrative medicine including exercise programs and holistic medical assessments as part of the overall package of cancer care. It is the home of evidence-based mind-body therapies like acupuncture, yoga, reflexology and mindfulness.
The clear message on World Cancer Day this year is that ‘everyone has the power to reduce the impact of cancer’. This might be being aware of your own body and alert to any changes, talking openly about cancer and sharing stories to raise awareness. Let’s commit to changing the face of cancer together.