Cancer is notorious for striking without symptoms, but many cancers come with early signs that are often ignored. As a result, the diagnosis is delayed and the cancer gets time to spread to other parts of the body, making treatment more toxic and expensive.
In such a scenario, delaying a visit to the doctor can further lower a person's chance of cure, warn cancer specialists.
Many cancers come with signs that are so ubiquitous that people tend to ignore them. It could just be persistent cough that refuses to respond to antibiotic treatment, shortness of breath, headache, lesions in the mouth,unexplained weight, appetite loss, gas, acidity, indigestion, excessive menstrual bleeding, alteration in bowel movements or changes in moles in the body.
"Often, these are just infections but you need to get tests done to rule out the possibility, more so if the symptoms recur and continue for more than a couple of weeks," said Dr Anupama Hooda, director, medical oncologist, Max Hospital's Cancer Centre.
If diagnosed early, cancers have high cure rate. In India, however, a majority of cancers are detected only after they have crossed the second stage, which makes treatment more difficult.
"About 70% of cancer cases reach hospitals in Stage Three or Four and only 30% come in Stage One or Two. It obviously affects the cure rate. In our cancer centre, we get 15,000 new cancer cases every year," said Dr Pramod Kumar Julka, head of the department, radiation oncology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
If diagnosed early, the patient may not require multiple treatment modalities, which means if the tumour is small, only surgery will do or the course of chemotherapy will be shorter and milder and the number of sittings for radiation therapy will also be smaller.
According to the Delhi Cancer Registry, responsible for the collection, storage, analysis and interpretation of data on people with cancer, lung, prostate and head and neck cancers are the top three cancers found among the Capital's men. Among Delhi women, breast cancer is common followed by cancer of the cervix.
Emphasising heavily on prevention, doctors divide the measures in two groups: primary and secondary.
Primary prevention means following a healthy lifestyle and doing away with certain preventable causes of cancer such as to stop the use of tobacco. "Tobacco, in both smoke and smokeless forms, is known to cause oral cancer. Lack of exercise and in-take of high fat diet also contribute in triggering abnormal growth of cancer cells," added Dr Julka.
Early detection through regular screening comes under secondary prevention. "Self-examination for any lumps in breast or groin, ultrasound of abdomen and pelvis, PAP smear and complete blood count and lipid profile screening should be made an annual practice," said Dr Hooda.