As Singapore’s population ages, the prevalence of cancer goes up. Today, it’s estimated that one in four people here will develop cancer in his or her lifetime. But should this bleak statistic necessarily spark fear and worry? And what should we do to manage the dreaded C word? We asked Dr Chay Wen Yee, a senior consultant in the department of medical oncology at National Cancer Centre Singapore, to tell us more.
Her sub-specialities focuses on gynaecological cancers and breast cancer. As the co-chair of Patient Support at NCCS, Dr Chay also participates actively in various patient support groups’ activities and programs like Run for Hope.
(Also read: 4 Easy Ways to Support Breast Cancer Awareness in Singapore)
Cancer rates are rising – but the numbers are not an entirely bad thing.
The risk of cancer goes up with age, and as our life expectancy increases, a cancer diagnosis may be par for the road for a significant proportion of people. Genes, the environment and lifestyle habits also play a part.
But there’s a silver lining. Cancer cases have also increased because more people are getting tested and screening methods have become more advanced in detecting the disease at an earlier stage. With early detection (and typically with sufficient health insurance coverage), doctors have seen higher survival rates too.
But if you are still anxious, the best way to tackle this fear is to have a better understanding of cancer and its causes, says Dr Chay. This involves regular screenings and maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet.
Cancer isn’t preventable right now, but researchers are working hard to change that. In the meantime, you can protect yourself with diligent screenings even when you feel healthy. “By the time symptoms appear, the disease would have been at an advanced stage,” shares Dr Chay.
Though cancer is most known to appear in older people, it can happen to younger folks who have a strong family history of cancer. Early detection is key to nipping the disease in the bud. Dr Chay recommends women between the age of 50 and 69 to have a mammography every two years, men and women above 50 to take a faecal immunochemical test, and sexually active women between 25 and 69 to get a pap smear once every three years.
While at it, consider getting an human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer.
(Also read: Different Types of Health Check-Ups And Screening Tests to Go For in Singapore)
You can return to normal life after cancer, but it takes time
“Having cancer starts from the diagnosis. Many patients are caught up during their treatment with various medical appointments and managing symptoms. Yet when the treatment is completed, some feel a sense of loss as they grapple with finding a new normal. Some people expect life to return to the way it was before the cancer diagnosis but the reality is often more complex,” says Dr Chay.
Cancer is often a life-changing experience and many often take the chance to reflect before moving forward into the future. Some patients also find strength and resilience through their cancer diagnosis and seek to share their life experiences with other fellow cancer individuals through various volunteer programs and patient support groups, Dr Chay adds.
The bottomline: there is no hurry to bounce right back to where you were before. Move at your own pace.
(Also read: What Every Woman Should Know About HPV Screening)
Cancer isn’t a death sentence
Cancer treatments have advanced greatly. With early detection and treatment, many cancers are now curable. Also, there are now more drugs and treatments with less side effects.
The latest advancement in this area is immunotherapy, which involves making the cancer “more visible to the immune system, and boosting the body’s immune responses against the cancer cells,” explains Dr Chay. There’s still loads of research to be done on immunotherapy along with other new exciting developments including personalised cancer vaccines and finding out how cancer cells “talk to each other” in the body.
(Also read: At 42, She Lost Both Breasts & Ovaries to Cancer)
While the scientists do their work, the best thing patients can do is to proactively work with the healthcare team to discuss treatment options. Emotional support is also an important part of healing – if your loved one is facing a cancer diagnosis, take the initiative to lend a helping hand with everyday tasks or accompany her to medical appointments.
You can also support cancer patients and increase awareness by joining events such as Run for Hope that raises money and understanding. The 2019 edition will be taking place on February 17.