Considering it’s World Cancer Day on the 4th of February, I decided it was the right time to tell a story of this silent, rising epidemic that takes ahold of a whopping 8.3 million people worldwide each year.

First things first, what exactly is cancer?

As the scientists say, once upon a time there was a mutated gene. And that mutated gene attacked targeted cells, causing them to divide in an uncontrollable fashion, that may form a tumour; and in some instances spreading it’s fingers of destruction throughout the body.

A nightmare reality that many people endure, cancer is like the black ink of death written in the history of my mother’s side of the family. I have often wondered why this disease is so rampant in my mother’s side in particular, and not my father’s. Does it come down to purely genetics? While a genetic predisposition may be a primary cause of cancer, often lifestyle, bad habits and uncontrollable environmental factors, from chemicals to viruses to radiation, also play a major role in causing cancer. So, this story is going to be a personal reflection and my attempt to gain a better understanding of cancer – what triggers it, how we can go about checking for signs of cancer and what we can do to show support and help create awareness. So, let’s talk cancer!

Some personal insights into the different types of cancer

My mother’s father succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 65. As he was a heavy smoker, oxygen was scarce, making it easy for a cancerous tumour to latch onto his lungs.

I have lost a cousin to stomach cancer, and another one to brain cancer. Both were chain smokers and they grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, when crop spraying was the norm. Pesticide chemicals (many of which are now banned in the likes of Europe and Asia) are systemic and drastically lower the immune system making it easier for cancer to take hold of the body. Their surviving brother and his two daughters surprisingly still live on the farm. However, thanks to ex-Mr President they have been unable to plant any crops for the past 18 years, they moved over to a small dairy project and vegetable growing. On the bright side, this means that their exposure to chemicals is minimal. And, none of them smoke either!

An uncle of mine just had his last chemo session for prostate cancer. The slow progressing cancerous growth that hijacked his male reproductive system subsequently went along and shut down his kidneys, also finding its way to his bones. Although he is feeling slightly better now (the chemo literally destroyed him), I’m crossing fingers that he will push through. I also have another cousin who had prostate cancer, but was luckily treated before it had spread too far. Trapped in the lymph nodes, radiation zapped the cancerous growth, along with the help of an extremely expensive experimental drug from the Mayo Clinic in America.

Now like many other types of cancer, there is no one hard and fast cause of prostate cancer. While genetics, age (prostate cancer is typically known as an old man’s cancer) and bad habits play a role, both relatives were relatively young when they were diagnosed with prostate cancer; and neither of them smoke. So, what are the other relating high risk factors? This leaves us with hormones and chemical exposure.

Of my two relatives with prostate cancer, the one lives right next door to a well-known wine estate in Cape Town. Could the proliferation of agrichemicals in the South-east winelands have an effect? Bear in mind, there is no properly enforced regulation of chemical in South Africa. My uncle whose cancer has spread to the bone, lives in the American Midwest and his suburban house is not far from the maize belt, which is typically sprayed with glyphosate Roundup herbicide. The WHO, World Health Organization, has stated that glyphosate causes cancer. The chemical interrupts the endocrine system — in other words messes with people’s reproductive organs. Could this be why there is a huge increase in younger men getting prostate cancer?

My aunt managed to catch early signs of breast cancer on time, which are basically growths that multiply within the milk producing glands. Thank the gods, a few sessions of radiation nipped it in the bud. There is also no clear origin of what causes breast cancer. Researchers, however, bring it down to lifestyle, as well hormonal and environmental factors in conjunction with genetic predispositions. So, maybe my aunt may have paid the price for her lifestyle of smoking and too many sessions in the sunbed!

A warning for my fair skinned tribe living in Southern Africa, it’s not all that sunny with skin cancer. Where rampant malignant growth occurs in the skin cells along the membrane between the superficial skin layer and deeper skin layers, skin cancer wreaks havoc but is at least confined to the skin and cannot spread to other parts of the body. There are several factors that cause skin cancer. One is the exposure of skin  (the largest organ of our body, which is meant to protect us) to intense ultraviolet light. There are three types of UV light: the long UVA type light which is more harmful to the skin in the long run, the shorter, hotter UVB type, causing the skin to burn in spring and summer, and then UVC, which is typically kept out of the ozone. However, as the ozone layer is drastically thinner in the southern hemisphere, could this damaging ultraviolet light be seeping through? Be sure to pile on the SPF protection just in case!

A suppressed immune system and exposure to harmful chemicals or even ionized radiation from X-rays can also bring about cancer in the skin.

Yes, my dad’s family have had no instances of cancer – which could be because none of them smoke and are for the most part academics and engineers, not farmers, which means minimal exposure to systemic chemicals, but I can’t help but feel concerned about my own susceptibility to cancer.

A genetic test of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) found in tissue cells not only determines our family history, it can also detect genetic susceptibility. This includes a biochemical test that looks for the presence of mutated gene, which could lead to the development of the cancerous growth. Genetic testing hones in on changes that occur in the chromosomes, genes or proteins related to that genetic disease, which will either confirm or rule out presence or risk of developing the genetic disease.

The earlier you detect signs of cancer, the better your chance at ensuring treatment is effective and recovery swift and easy. So, if you, like me, have a history of cancer, you should look into screening options available and go for regular self-examinations and medical check-ups. The CANSA care facilities offers screening tests for cancer across South Africa, though booking an appointment is necessary to ensure the clinic is fully prepared for your specific screening needs. Best of all: there is minimal cost involved, just enough to cover necessary materials; and the procedure is usually covered by medical aid.

How do we combat cancer?

I already have a high risk of developing cancer, which means that I need to look into ways to reduce that risk. It all comes down to preventative measures; and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The cancer centre advices patients to eat fresh organic foods and exercise in the fresh air as much as possible. I’m certainly going to be making a conscious effort to bring out those running shoes more often and throw back more smoothies. Also, plenty of sleep and minimal stress are a great help (if my job allows it!). Cutting down on those sneaky cigarettes would probably also be a good idea.

Hand and hand with this, is creating awareness for the disease. The CANSA society is working tirelessly to ensure more people are educated on the causes of cancer and how they can go about reducing the risk. They run a number of campaigns such SunSmart, Balanced Lifestyle, No-Tobacco, Children & Youth, Women’s Health & Men’s Health.

What is the idea behind World Cancer Day?

An initiative brought about by the International Cancer Control (UICC), a leading non-government organisation formed to unite and provide support to the growing cancer community, World Cancer Day is about creating a platform where the entire world can unite and inspire a drive to action this cancer issue.

So let’s create awareness and follow movements on social media, such as #WorldCancerDay #IAmAndIWill

Do you have a family history of cancer? Feel free to share your cancer stories in the comment section below.


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