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India: The Cancer Capital of the World?

A recent report made by Apollo Hospitals last month, has termed India as the “cancer capital of the world.”

The report, released under the title, Apollo Hospital’s Health of Nation Report, suggests a startling increase in cancer and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) nationwide, which have raised a grave concern among people.

What did the study actually reveal?

The report revealed that 63% of deaths in India currently occur as a result of non-communicable diseases or NCDs.

As per the information provided by the Business Standard, these illnesses can further lead to India’s economic production to decline by $3.55 trillion by 2030.

The study highlighted another grim reality: India recorded 13.9 lakh cancer cases in 2020, and by 2025, that number is expected to increase by 15.7 lakh, marking a notable 13% increase in only five years.

Another disturbing trend has emerged where it has been observed that cancer disease disproportionately impacts the younger population, with diagnoses emerging at early ages than those living in the West.

The report also mentioned that, in India, the average age at which breast cancer is diagnosed is 52, which is significantly lower than the 63 average age in the US and Europe. Similarly, the average age of a lung cancer diagnosis in India is 59, whereas in Western nations, it is 70.

The report also claimed that around 30% of patients with colon cancer at Apollo Hospitals are under age 50.

But despite these alarming statistics, cancer screening rates still remains appallingly low in India. It is found that, in India, just 1.9% of women undergo screening for breast cancer, while 0.9% of women undergo screening for cervical cancer.

This stands in stark contrast to screening rates in other countries for breast cancer, which are 82% in the US, 70% in the UK, and 23% in China. For cervical cancer, the screening rates are 73% in the US, 70% in the UK, and 43% in China, based on Apollo findings.

Understanding Cancer Trends

The report made by Apollo Hospitals also shed light on the prevalent cancer trends among men and women.

The report highlights a concerning reality where men are statistically more likely to develop certain types of cancer compared to women.

The report suggests that men are more prone to develop lung, oral, and prostate cancers while women are more likely to develop breast, cervical, and ovarian cancers.

The reason for high rates of lung and oral cancer among men can be attributed to the habit of smoking and tobacco use in men. As stated by News18, gutka and paan masala are factors responsible for a remarkable 90% of incidences of oral cancer in India.

In addition, breast cancer and cervical cancer are found to be leading issues in women which calls for immediate attention. This  further highlights the significance of routine screenings and early detection strategies for women. Ovarian cancer poses a significant risk to women’s health in a similar manner.

Additionally, India diagnoses over 10 lakh new instances of cancer each year, of which 4% include youngsters.

Expert Opinions

According to experts, the current rise in cancer cases is due to a number of factors, such as food habits, environmental pollution, and genetic predispositions.

Sharing an insight on the same, Dr. Arif Khan, Managing Director of Ginger Healthcare said, “India is experiencing a sharp rise in cancer cases due to a combination of factors including poor food habits, exposure to environmental pollutants, and genetic predispositions. Unhealthy eating habits, which include consuming processed foods that are rich in additives and preservatives, together with widespread environmental pollution, expose people to chemicals that cause cancer and greatly increase their chance of developing the disease. Also, genetic predispositions may further increase an individual’s chance of developing cancer.”

He further added, “In order to address this situation, a holistic approach is necessary which includes genetic screening, environmental controls, and dietary changes.”

The WHO claims that about 30-40 per cent of cancer incidences occur due to leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

A diet deficient in fruits and vegetables, alcohol use, obesity, physical inactivity, and tobacco use can all lead to an increase in cancer cases.

How stress and cancer are related

Experts also believe that stress has a major role to play on the development of cancer, which may be partially attributed to the body’s reaction to the stress hormone cortisol.

As a normal reaction to stressful situations, the body releases cortisol. Even while cortisol normally drops when a perceived danger is no longer there, prolonged exposure to stressors can interfere with this regulation process. This prolonged increase in cortisol may lead to immunological breakdown and cellular exhaustion, which further facilitates pathogenic invasion.

What is even more concerning is that, the elevated cortisol levels contribute a great deal to the spread of cancer-causing viruses in the body. This mechanism further emphasizes the intricate relationship that exists between immunity, stress, and cancer susceptibility, underscoring the need for more research to reduce the risks of cancer associated with stress.

Why screening is important

Experts also warn that if action is not taken now, India’s cancer incidence trend is likely to worsen over the next several decades.

That’s why a key weapon in the battle against cancer becomes necessary. In this case, cancer screening can become an important tool in fighting cancer. This also calls for coordinated efforts by both social and government stakeholders.

Dr. Nitesh Rohatgi, Senior Director of Medical Oncology at Fortis Memorial Research Institute further emphasized the significance of early detection and the necessity of routine screenings. He said, “There is no doubt that cancer is growing and there needs to be prioritized action by everyone. For instance, the government should incentivize screening as a first measure.” He further added, “There is also a need for policies to impart financial protection and expand the screening and curative services for cancer.” (Source: Firstpost)

The experts also emphasized the importance of screening for young people as it might get too late if not detected early.

Contemplating on the same, Dr. Arif Khan said, “Even in cases when the prevalence of cancer is low, the younger population continue to remain under threat. Many young Indians might wait until their symptoms worsen before seeking regular medical treatment or check-ups.”

Call for action

While acknowledging the serious threat posed by the increased rate of cancer, Dr. Asit Arora, Director of Cancer Care at Max Hospital, Delhi, told DW, “I would not want to call it an epidemic but we will see cancer cases double by 2040 compared to 2020. A lot of them can be prevented at the individual, societal and governmental levels.” Showing his grave concern, he further added, “If we don’t do anything we, as a society, will be paying a heavy price.” (Source: Firstpost)

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