World Cancer Day 2022: Bad AQI reason behind 60% increase in lung and bladder cancer, say doctors

– Contaminated air is only going to push cancer cases up.

– Cases in the country increased at an annual rate of 5 per cent from 2010 to 2019.

– Nearly 100 per cent cure for cancers like thyroid and ovarian; not with pancreatic cancer.

A recently released Lancet report found that pollution in India has led to an increase in diseases like lung cancer. According to an analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington School of Medicine in December last year, cancer cases in the country increased at an annual rate of 5 per cent from 2010-2019. The average rate also went up by 2 per cent in the same period.

“Bad AQI in metro cities has enhanced the problem. Cancer treatment had always posed a challenge but bad air has increased chances of fatality in a patient by over 80 per cent. It has also had an adverse effect on the number of new cancer cases. It’s difficult to give an absolute number at this stage, but I would say bad air results in almost 60 per cent chance of you developing a cancer,” said Dr Hrishikesh Solanki, oncologist with Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai.

Dr Moushumi’s Suryavanshi, managing Molecular Diagnostics at Rajiv Cancer Institute & Research Centre tells you that despite advancement in medicine and surgical techniques, cancer has been on the rise for several reasons. “It can be due to dietary reasons, genetics, smoking, obesity and even environmental reasons. When we say environmental pollution, it could mean many things; air pollution is one of them. There has been research done on the impact of environmental pollution on cancer and we do see a very clear link between the two. But in medical fraternity we don’t just label it as air pollution. We have noticed that high amount of benzene enzymes present in the air cause lung or bladder cancer. Benzene is seen when the quality of air is between the bad-worse category. We look at what kind of chemicals are there in the pollution causing cancer,” Suryavanshi explains.

A study conducted in 2014 by Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) had shown that benzene was found in higher quantities in most part of the city. But it was not included as a part of the AQI index. “Benzene exposure is inviting trouble. Most of our research has pointed out that in areas which had an AQI over 50, the benzene level was quite high. But it is not monitored anywhere in India,” said Solanki.

An updated Globocan study by IARC in December 2021, witnessed a new rise on the global cancer burden, with over 19.3 million cases and 10 million cancer deaths in 2020.

It’s not just pollutants in the air but environmental pollution around us that is causing more cancers. Dr Saurabh Verma, senior scientist at the Institute of Pathology in Delhi tells us that air pollution is definitely a contributor toward the rise in cancer cases that we have witnessed in the past five years. “Nothing is pure around us. Air is contaminated and so is the food. Fruits and veggies that look fresh have chemicals in them. The cauliflower that looks white and fresh has been washed with copper sulphate. These are all carcinogenic. While there has been plenty of research and advancement in medicine and how surgeries are done, sadly, the numbers are only going to go up until we eradicate pollution absolutely. This is an ideal world solution,” Verma adds.

Advanced technologies are there but dealing with cancer is tricky

Yes, we have made strides in medical technology to detect cancers before it is too late. We have also mitigated the side effects of chemo to a great extent thanks to modern medicine. Does that mean, cancer is now curable?

“Today, it is a possibility that you have biosensors in your blood that could detect abnormal cells and sound an alert. There will be better screening modalities, people will become more aware, there will be advancement in treatment – drug-wise. We have immuno-therapy where the body’s immuno cells to kill cancer cells which works in 10 per cent of tumours. We have molecular therapy, where you may have more patients taking medicines for life. We already do such drugs for lung cancer. There will be progress at every front. Humans will continue to progress and make technological advancement. But doing away with chemical and plastic use completely is not likely to happen in the near future. As long as these pollutants remain, environmental hazards will cause cancer case pile ups,” Suryavanshi said.

For Dr Praveen Garg who is a senior consultant in surgical oncology at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, it is not a surprise that number of cancer cases is on the rise. “One reason is that we are testing more. This means we are diagnosing cancers that were earlier going as unnoticed. Before 2010, most patients were oblivious to their body cancers or were wrongly diagnosed by local doctors. One fine morning, the patient would just be dead due to his illness but his cancer reality would never come to the fore. This has changed. Due to new testing techniques today, we can pick up what is wrong. Cancer can be detected pretty easily nowadays and hence the cases are on rise,” he said.

The second reason for the increase in cancer is due to our lifestyle. “Unhealthy eating and drinking habits in youngsters have a role to play in the sudden spike of cancer cases. Stress is another big reason for some forms of cancer. Bad sleeping habits is also a big cause for cancer today,” Dr Garg said.

Is there no cure for cancer at all?

The good news is that more people are surviving cancer than ever before. Early diagnosis is critical as it means patients can receive treatment when there is a better chance of achieving a complete cure. Also, over a third of cancers are preventable. We should invest in cancer prevention and give people faster access to diagnostic tests and make sure more patients can quickly benefit from precise, highly personalised treatments as medical science advances,” Dr Krithika Murugan, Surgical Oncologist, HCG Cancer Hospital Bengaluru, said.

But the operative word is early diagnosis. Even a delay of a few days in diagnosing your cancer can result in fatalities, say experts.

The other positive is that we are closer to almost 100 per cent treatment in certain types of cancers like thyroid, ovarian and breast cancer. “With cancers like testicular and thyroid, we can easily say there is a 100 per cent chance of recovery. But in other forms of cancer like pancreatic cancer, chances of survival are bleak. It is difficult to say with which research we will get closer to a cure. What we can say with certainty is that we are getting better with treatment – be it medicines, chemo and radiation,” Garg said.

World Cancer Day 2022: Bad AQI reason behind 60% increase in lung and bladder cancer, say doctors

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