Pacific Family Health Journal: Article 1 – Cancer prevention in PNG

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Pacific Family Health Journal with Dr Rodney Itaki

Cancer in Papua New Guinea: Prevention is still the best cure!

Cancer results from cells that are growing out of control. There are many forms of cancer but for simplicity we can divide cancer into 2 forms: (1) blood cancers or cancer of the blood cells, for example leukemia and (2) tissue cancers, for example mouth cancer or cervical cancer. So how does cancer start and what can cause cancer?

Simple answer to the question is: DNA damage leads to cancer. DNA is the genetic material in every human cell that codes for everything about a person. A baby gets half of the DNA from the mother and the other half comes from the father. Therefore, anything that damages our DNA will lead to development of cancer in the body. So what things can damage DNA?

Everything around us can damage DNA. Anything we eat or drink can damage DNA. Chemicals can damage DNA. Some infections, especially viral infections can damage DNA. Certain frequency waves can damage DNA. Some medicines can damage DNA. Some social drugs can damage DNA – alcohol, smoking and betel nut chewing. So we can see that if we are aware of what things around us that can damage DNA (that can lead to cancer development) we can prevent cancer by controlling our environment and our habits.

In Papua New Guinea the common forms of cancer are mouth cancer, breast cancer, uterine cancer, and cervical cancer. We already know that smoking is the single most important factor leading to cancer in the world. PNG is no exception where smoking is rampant among both the old and young. We also know that betel nut chewing leads to mouth cancer. Betel nut chewing is uncontrolled and unregulated. Children are starting to chew betel nut at very young ages. 

Early detection is another way cancer can be controlled and if treated at an early stage, people can be cured of cancer. Even in the best cancer centers in the world, advanced cancer is very difficult to treat and most patients do not survive for more than 5 years after receiving treatment. The key in cancer control is stopping social habits that are high risk (e.g. smoking, betel nut chewing) and early detection.

While every effort is being made to establish cancer treatment facilities in PNG for treating cancer patients, equal effort (or much more) should be done to identify and remove cancer causing things in our environment, encourage healthy habits and help people stop bad habits and establish early cancer detection programs in health facilities.

Cancer treatment facilities in PNG are still far off and prevention is therefore the best cure!

Dr Rodney Itaki, MBBS, BMedSci

Dr Itaki’s intro article here

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