A look at Cancer in the South Asian Community
I recently found out that a friend of mine had cancer. In the weeks since, I have been unable to properly wrap my head around the news. We seem to hold this innate belief that we have several decades left on this planet; that we’ll live to be a hundred years old, or close to it. Hopefully we will, but every once in a while we are awaken from our dream world to the reality that life is precious and fleeting. Maybe, just maybe though, we can try to squeeze out a few extra drops of the marrow of life that Thoreau waxed poetically about by doing everything possible to take care of our health.
This piece is my humble attempt at raising cancer awareness in our community, so let’s get to it.
“F” acts about Cancer
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., next to heart disease. As we know, South Asians are disproportionately at risk for cardiovascular disease. But what about cancer? In the U.S., Asians rank 4th in risk profile for cancer. According to the CDC, African Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics are at greater risk for cancer (all cancers combined) than Asians. The CDC further finds that Asians rank 5th in death rates linked to cancer (all cancers combined). On the surface this is promising news. However we must dig deeper to better understand how cancer affects our community.
For example, the NCBI published a study that suggests that cancer is the leading cause of death in Asian Americans, which suggests that while Asian Americans are far less susceptible to cancer than other ethnicities, it is perhaps more lethal in Asian Americans, or it is discovered too late in Asian Americans.
While Asians seem to be less at risk for cancer than other ethnicities, part of this statistical result may be caused by undocumented cases stemming from our community’s propensity to be screened less than others. The Cancer Institute of New Jersey found that that participation by South Asians in screenings to detect breast, cervical and colorectal cancers is lower when compared with the general population in the U.S.
Another issue to keep in mind is that while Asians are at lower risk for cancer at large, we are at a higher risk for certain types of cancer, including oral cancers, due to our increased use of smokeless tobacco products (according to Memorial Sloan Kettering).
The takeaway here is to get screened regularly and evaluate behaviors that might increase your risk profile for cancer.
“F” ears about Cancer
Ours is a wonderful heritage, rich with culture, history, and spirituality. However, sometimes our background and traditional beliefs can skew our practical appreciation of the world that surrounds us. Dealing with disease is one area where I believe this to be true. Cancer is something that happens – it is a scientific reality. For some, it is even a scientific and genetic inevitability (grim thought right?). What sometimes inhibits our ability to tackle such a disease is the fear that being ill is a manifestation of one’s karma. That stigma of being cursed; of being a marked individual or family can paralyze one’s ability to get proper screening, treatment, and emotional support. Looking at cancer as a spiritual curse rather than a scientific event not only inhibits one’s treatment but also inflicts serious emotional and psychological trauma to the patient’s frail state.
Another prevalent fear, is the fear of diagnosis. This can lead to delaying medical visits and ignoring symptoms in hopes that they will go away. The idea that if you avoid the diagnosis you’re somehow not sick can waste precious time in the treatment process. So be sure to get your regular checkups and screenings.
“F” riending Cancer
What do you say to someone who has cancer? How can you be a good friend? Do you talk about it, or try to take their mind off of it? These are the questions that came to mind when I learned of my friend’s diagnosis. Sadly, I’m still not sure what the right way to go is here. Here’s what the American Cancer Society has to say. Here’s what Cancer Treatment Centers of America has to say. And here is what the Cleveland Clinic suggests. Please send me more suggestions if you have a good resource to share.
“F” ighting Cancer
Jimmy V famously said, “don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” Stuart Scott said, “When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer…You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.” But what does it mean to fight cancer? For each individual it means something different. I will not pretend to know enough to tell anyone how to fight cancer and this section is not intended to do that. However, it is meant to give some tips on what you can do to prevent this heinous disease, whether you have it or not. Here are three suggestions to consider:
First, be sure to take care of your health: get regular checkups, get regular screenings, and be aware of the symptoms at the earliest stages. What are those symptoms and warning signs? MD Anderson has laid out a basic list here, with a more comprehensive list of symptoms by cancer type here.
Second, be conscious of how your behaviors and environment may impact your risk. Here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic and the American Institute of Cancer Research on reducing your Cancer risk. In fact, the American Institute of Cancer Research says that “about 1/3 of cancers in the 1.5 million cancers that occur every year in the U.S. could be prevented by following these guidelines.”
Third, help the broader fight at large. For example, get on the bone marrow donor registry. The South Asian Marrow Association of Recruiters says, “Every three minutes, one person is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Every 10 minutes, someone dies from a blood cancer. That’s more than six people each hour, or 148 people each day.” Yet there is a significant shortage of South Asian donors registered to help these patients. The National Marrow Donor Program, which administers a national registry in the U.S., says out of 10.5 million registered marrow donors, only 2% are South Asian.
“F” unding Cancer Research
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and November is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. While it is encouraging that we are making these cancers a primary focus in hopes to defeat them someday, it is sad that they have become so devastating and pervasive as to warrant such a focus.
Cancer in children is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the U.S. In 2014, it is estimated that 15,780 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 years will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,960 will die of the disease in the U.S. Breast Cancer is the most common cancer among women and the second leading cause of cancer death in women. The awareness months and other movements provide ample opportunity to support cancer research through volunteering, participating in runs and walks, or through donations. Who knows, you might even have a great time and meet some amazing people.
For example, this past year I was able to attend a gala and dinner in support of families dealing with pediatric cancer. Laura Lutarewych started Atia’s Project Ladybug Fund in Chicago to support Comer Children’s Hospital and the families that are enduring this difficult battle. Her fundraising events were supported by Project Ladybug founded by philanthropist and television personality Dina Manzo, former NFL player and Emmy Nominated broadcaster Anthony “Spice” Adams of Inside the Bears, as well as NFL great Matt Forte. These individuals were incredibly generous with their time and their hearts in raising awareness and funds for a great cause, and I am grateful to have been a small part of it.
Did you know that there are in excess of 1.6 million charities in the U.S.? More than a few focus on the fight against cancer, so get involved in some way shape or form because we need everyone’s help to defeat this serial killer. Right now the U.S. spends approximately $5 billion a year in cancer research, with nearly $1.5 billion funding breast cancer research. This is an important fight, but it isn’t a cheap fight.
F Cancer. F what it does to our loved ones. F what it does to their families. In the past few years significant breakthroughs have occurred in the treatment of various cancers. Individuals such as Siddhartha Mukherjee, Shivani Sud and Nithin Tumma also featured in Sava360 are among the brilliant minds on the front lines of this important battle. We are at a point in time where medical science is making significant progress against the big C. So let’s all roll up our sleeves and pitch in however we can so we can together say “F” Cancer!