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Increasing risk from habits, lifestyle — India put on `lead time' to cancer epidemic: Expert

Vinson Kurian

Thiruvananthapuram , June 21

INDIA is sitting on a tinderbox of a major cancer epidemic created out of habits that are becoming entrenched, and lifestyles devoid of physical exertion among the vulnerable population.

Significantly, the latter includes young professionals from the IT and biotechnology sectors known for spending long hours at work with hardly any room for engaging themselves physically.

Lifestyle cancers? "Very much, yes. People with executive lifestyles are at increasing risk of contracting three major cancers - those of the breast, prostate and colon. There are also a number of minor ones, such as testicular cancer, that can squarely be blamed on the sedentary lifestyle marked by complete lack of physical activity," says Dr M. Krishnan Nair, Founder Director of the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC), Thiruvananthapuram, and Director of the Institute of Oncology at the Sree Uthradam Thirunal Hospital here. He is also a member on the WHO expert panel on cancer.

Dr Nair sought to single out executives who sit and work. "And now we are going to have more and more of young people who are likely to go in for jobs of these nature. Once at work, they are glued to their chairs and rise, if at all, to attend calls of nature only."

"On a different plane, smoking and consumption of alcohol have become well established during the past five years, which, between themselves, account for 80 per cent of all cancers. Consequent to all these things, we would possibly see cancer reach epidemic proportions in the next 20 to 30 years. We would then catch up with the US in terms of the numbers affected."

India still has an advantage that cancer rates are still very low - cancer deaths in the sub-continent are well below the world average of 90 per lakh of population annually. But Indians make easy meat for cancer genes, thanks to ingraining of habits and lifestyles. But, fortunately enough, time is on their side. This is because cancer always has got a "lead time" to strike as an epidemic - 20 to 30 years as explained above.

For instance, cigarette smoking became a fad in the 1940s, during the Second World War. But lung cancer became a major epidemic in the US and the UK only in 1962. So, there was a lead period of 20 years. Smoking became universal in China in the 1980s. And the results are showing, with China housing one of the largest numbers of lung cancer patients.

Closer home, alcohol has been becoming a habit during the last five years or so. But for oesophageal cancer and stomach cancer to reach international levels would take another 20 to 25 years. So, this is the right time for initiating preventive measures.

"In my opinion, just as in the case of other communicable diseases, there can be an overall preventative strategy. In such a strategy, we seek to identify risk factors. Tobacco, alcohol, diet and lack of exercise are mainly responsible for 80 per cent of all cancers, except those that occur in children, and some in soft tissue," says Dr Nair.

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