Preventing cancer


    ‘To a major extent, whether we realize it or not, cancer risk, and risk for most other illnesses is within our control. It takes a lot of sacrifices to prevent cancer, but a thousand-fold more pain and suffering to fight it when one gets it.’

    What is cancer?

    CANCER or a malignant tumor is a disease entity where the cells in the tissues of an organ (like the breast, lung, prostate, liver, brain, etc.) change into a new morphology with bizarre and aggressive invasive behavior. These malignant cells grow rapidly, replicate beyond control, transforming the normal anatomy of an organ to a giant unrecognizable, useless, part of the body. Example of this is neglected cancer of the thyroid where the tumor becomes larger than the patient’s head. Cancer spreads to other organs adjacent to them (local metastasis) or travel by blood or lymph circulation to invade other organs in other region of the body (distant metastasis), like lung cancer spreading to the brain or breast cancer metastasizing to the bones. The normal biological “growth control or timing” is lost and the tumor mass keeps on growing until it is removed or spreading till the patient expires.

    Why do cancers develop?

    Cancers develop among those individuals with genetic predisposition to them following exposure to physical or chemical irritants, which are called carcinogens. Some examples of these are chronic exposure to radiation, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. The resistance or immunity to cancer in some people (despite similar exposures to cancer-causing agents) is conferred on them by their genetic integrity. Someday, medical science may be able to prevent cancers through “gene therapy,” by removing the specific gene(s) or portion of the gene that is defective.

    Are cigarettes really carcinogenic?

    There is no doubt any more that smoking auses cancer, not only of the lungs but the throat, breasts, prostate, cervix, and other organs. The tobacco industry has finally “confessed” their prior knowledge (which they subdued for decades) that cigarettes can indeed cause cancers and a host of cardiovascular illnesses, including heart attacks. Individual cancer victims of cigarette smoking have successfully sued and have been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars by the courts in the United States.

    How about secondhand smoke?

    Secondhand cigarette (side-stream) smoke is even worse as a carcinogen than firsthand (mainstream) smoke, because there are about 4000 chemical agents in side-stream smoke, 200 of them known poisons. A significant number of cancers among non-smokers have been caused by secondhand smoke.

    Are skin moles potential cancer growths?

    Depending on the appearance, pigmentation, location, size or speed of growth, etc., “normal moles” can be pre-malignant, one that could transform into cancer. However, majority of moles that people have are benign (non-cancerous). If there is anything that is unusual about the “behavior” of a mole, it should be examined by a dermatologist without delay. One particular mole, malignant melanoma, is savagely cancerous and rapidly spreads to kill the patient, if not discovered and treated early enough. While Asian women on the beach with umbrella looks funny/weird, avoiding excessive sun exposure is smart, a behavior that results in a more youthful complexion and lower risk for skin cancer.

    Is excessive exposure to sunlight carcinogenic?

    Yes, prolonged and repeated exposure to bright sunlight (ultraviolet rays) can cause cancer of the skin. Asian women are less prone to skin cancer formation (and have better complexion than their American and European counterparts) because by nature they shun sunlight and use umbrellas even on the beach! Skin sunblocker lotions or creams (at least UV 15 to 40) are recommended two to three times a day. But most importantly, minimizing exposure to sunlight (even indirectly) to less than 30 minutes twice a day, or an hour a day, is a prudent preventive measure.

    Does frequent sex cause cancer?

    Sex per se does not directly cause any form of cancer, no matter how frequent. However, having multiple sex partners increases a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer, besides hepatitis. The reverse does not seem to raise a man’s chance of having prostate cancer. Lymphogranuloma Venereum is a venereal condition that is sexually transmitted, where the lymph glands in the groins turn into huge tumor masses. AIDS, while deadly, is not considered a form of cancer in the usual medical sense. It is more of “depletion and paralysis” of the immune system to the point that the body’s natural defenses against various common diseases are weakened or even lost, rendering the body helpless and vulnerable to all illnesses.

    Do spicy foods cause gastric cancer?

    There is no scientific evidence to prove that regular ingestion of spicy foods (like in Thailand, India, Mexico, etc) causes cancer of the stomach. Neither is there any medical proof that eating temperature-hot foods (like in China) increases the incidence of cancer of the esophagus or stomach. While cancer of the stomach is quite common in Japan, the causal relationship between this malignancy and eating raw food (like sushi) or eating hot foods has not been established. If properly secured, prepared and free of infestation, sushi is one of the healthiest foods there is. Chronic alcohol intake, on the other hand, has been found to be associated with cancer of the esophagus (foodpipe), stomach, etc.

    Does hepatitis lead to cancer?

    Yes, a significant number of patients with Hepatitis B or C develop Hepatoma (cancer of the liver), which is very common in the Philippines and other parts of Asia. And hepatitis could be so subtle that anyone can have it without knowing he/she has it. Food handlers with hepatitis and infected sex partners (kissing, using the same toothbrush, drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated food, oral or anal sex) can transmit the hepatitis to others.

    How does one reduce the risk for cancer?

    Living a healthy style is the best way to prevent or reduce the risk for cancer. A diet of fish, a lot of vegetables, nuts, some fruits, and minimal or no red meat, daily exercise, no smoking, minimal or no exposure to chemicals and fumes, one drink in the evening with meals or no alcohol at all, having positive frame of mind and attitude, behavioral modification – all these (combined) reduce the risk for major illnesses, including cancer. To a major extent, whether we realize it or not, cancer risk, and risk for most other illnesses is within our control. It takes a lot of sacrifices to prevent cancer, but a thousand-fold more pain and suffering to fight it when one gets it.

    Has cancer therapy improved over the years?

    Yes, most definitely. While many forms of cancers are still a major killer in the world today, there have been significant strides and advances made in the diagnosis and management of some of them. Oncology (medical specialty in cancer therapy) has come of age and sophistication. Technological breakthroughs in various fields, including in computer technology and biotechnology, have likewise propelled the discovery of new and more effective modes of prevention, diagnosis and therapy for many diseases, including cancers.

    Someday, hopefully, cancer will be a disease of the past, like the deadly smallpox, which the Philippines totally eradicated decades ago. In this respect, the Philippines appears to be ahead of other countries, including the United States. But until science has conquered all forms of cancers, we still have a long way to go.


    Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, a Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus based in Northwest Indiana and Las Vegas, Nevada, is an international medical lecturer/author, a Health Advocate, and Chairman of the Filipino United Network-USA, a 501(c)3 humanitarian foundation in the United States. Websites: and Email: