Knowledge, the main weapon against cancer

It is up to us to avoid developing cancer, to locate it in time, or to cure it. Exaggerated alcohol consumption and being overweight are risk factors.

Knowledge, the main weapon against cancer
In the fight against cancer, knowledge is your best weapon. Photo by Angiola Harry / Unsplash

In Mexico, 21 women die every day from breast cancer and, if this trend continues, by 2040 it could increase to 36 deaths per day, according to projections by the World Health Organization (WHO), says Leticia Rocha Zavaleta, an expert at the Institute of Biomedical Research (IIBO) of UNAM, Mexico's National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

This type of tumor is the main cause of death in Mexican women over 30 years of age. In 2020, 29,000 cases were detected and 7,900 deaths were recorded, of which only 58 were male. The figures show the importance of gender in this disease.

The statistics also reveal that when they go to the oncologist they have an advanced tumor and the response to treatment is lower. They also show that we are far from covering the target population for screening studies such as mastographies.

The WHO's predictions on how the numbers of new cases detected would change are frightening, says the member of the IIBO's Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, and are based on the ease with which the population has access to diagnostic methods.

"If our trend continued as it is today, by 2025 we would have 34,000 cases of this cancer; by 2030, 37,000; and by 2040, 45,000 cases. In terms of deaths, we would have 9,000 by 2025; by 2030 this would increase to 10,500, and by 2040 to 13,500 deaths," she points out.

The campaigns to carry out diagnostic tests should not be limited to the month of the fight against this type of disease. "It is the responsibility of the health and education systems to insist, throughout the year, that these tests are done," the researcher stresses.

Cancer prevention methods

The cancer expert explains that the norm establishes that women over 40 years of age must undergo a mastography every year. In the case of women over 50, this study is complemented with a breast ultrasound to detect small growths, even in areas where the mastograph cannot detect them, due to the density of the gland.

Before the age of 40, it is not advisable to perform these tests because they use radiation to which younger women should not be exposed.

However, manual inspection is indicated for all ages. They should do it manually to detect warning signs such as the presence of lumps, any abnormal hardened growth, hardening or sagging of the nipple, reddening of the skin, itching, and even changes in its coloring.

"All these are warning signs to go to the doctor, and depending on the age and density of the mammary gland, an ultrasound or a mastography, if required, will be indicated," she explains.

Self-examination should be carried out with a certain frequency, for example, once a week, on a day when the woman has more time when she is relaxed at home, suggests the researcher.

The objective is to detect this cancer as early as possible, to have a better chance of responding adequately to treatment and being cured.

Unfortunately, the expert insists, a significant number of women in Mexico still do not have access to the studies because of their distance from hospitals that have mastographs or ultrasounds; because of their socioeconomic condition and the difficulty of accessing the tests free of charge.

"Unfortunately, so far we have not been able to develop a test in which, with a drop of blood or a urine sample, we could detect cancer," she adds.

Cancer is a multifactorial disease

There are a few types of cancer whose cause can be attributed to a single factor, but this is not the case with breast cancer, since it is a multifactorial neoplasm. The most frequent risk factor is being over 50 years of age, followed by the genetic factor, that is, having had cases of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in the family.

"Hereditary cancer, which can generate a tumor in the mammary gland, can also do so in the ovary. So you have to be very careful when there is a family history of these two. The probability that the present and future generations will suffer from it is very high, therefore, our doctors should always be made aware of it," the researcher stresses.

The third risk factor is exposure to female hormones called estrogens; this is the reason why they suffer more from these tumors than men.

Women who started menstruating before the age of 12 and those whose menopause occurred after the age of 50, those who have taken them as hormone replacement for more than one year, and those who use them as oral contraceptives for more than five years, have a higher risk of breast cancer.

Likewise, those who have not had children because their exposure to estrogens is continuous. "When we have a child, estrogen production stops; while we breastfeed the levels drop, but those who have never had children have been, we could say, in uninterrupted exposure to estrogens", assures Rocha Zavaleta.

There are external factors related to lifestyle that favor this condition, such as being overweight. The World Health Organization has reliably demonstrated that more than 40 percent of breast cancer cases in women over 50 years of age -who are in menopause- can be explained by obesity.

"In this age group it is extremely risky to have obesity," the university professor emphasizes, while also referring to the exaggerated consumption of alcohol, at any age.

"All women are at risk. Not developing the disease, finding it promptly, or curing it, depends on us. Knowledge is our main tool, our best weapon to be able to free ourselves from the scourge of this disease", insists the specialist.