The phrase, ‘You are what you eat’ cannot be truer today because owing to the foods we are consuming, many diseases are cropping up in our bodies at a rate faster than we can possibly control. One of them is non-communicable diseases where cancer belongs.
More to that, it is gastrointestinal cancers that are hitting hard as these affect organs such as stomach, esophagus, gall bladder, bowels, rectum, anus, liver, and pancreas, all of which are instrumental in the digestion of these foods.
Dr Peter Mbidde, an oncologist at UMC Victoria Hospitals, says most cancers have an environmental and genetic cause factor.
Environmental factors are things we are exposed to such as food and physical activity, among others.
“For example, when one is on a high animal fat diet, they are prone to diseases; accumulation of fat leads to lifestyle diseases and obesity, which predisposes to cancers of the large intestines,” Dr Mbidde says.
He adds that because of poor food storage, most especially grains, many people ingest aflatoxins that cause liver cancer.
Dr Mbidde adds that if one lives a sedentary lifestyle, the body will not use all the food you eat thus storing it as fat. “That also causes obesity,” he says.
Pollution is also another factor that causes cancer because when one consumes water that is contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury or lead, they are predisposed to various ailments. “These metals come from water pollution from industries and the like,” Dr Mbidde says.
He also warns on consumption of unsaturated oils, which are usually found in junk foods, saying they predispose one to cancer.
Dr Mbidde also warns against smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol.
“Smoking is said to cause more than 20 types of cancer right from the mouth to the gut while alcohol also has its share of causes,” he says.
Dr Mbidde adds that smoking accounts for a rapid increase in the number of oesophageal cancers just like oral sex, owing to the spread of human papillomavirus (HPV) from the genitals to the mouth.
While red meat is often listed as the major cause of cancer, he says white meat can also cause cancer depending on the way it is cooked.
“For example, when these meats are roasted or grilled, they produce nitrosamines, which are colossal to the intestinal lining. More to that, eating red meat in excess is dangerous,” Dr Mbidde says.
He also attributes cancer to genetic factors.
“About 10 per cent of cancers have a genetic predisposition. Therefore, such people will have cancers at a young age much as most cancers start occurring when one is 50 years and above,” Dr Mbidde explains.
He explains such young people may have had relatives that have suffered from the cancer. Such have what is termed as lynch syndrome.
However, Dr Noleb Mugisha, an oncologist at the Uganda Cancer Institute, says: “We cannot honestly tell who is genetically predisposed because we lack the capacity to carry our genetic profiling. That is also because we do not have population based cancer registries that cover all the population and have spanned for years to analyse and come to some conclusions.”
He adds that he has seen children suffer from cancers, which those in the western world only develop when they are older.
“We are yet to explain that phenomena but we could attach this to the fact that as Africans, we have got more mutations seeing that we have been here longest and have continually passed on mutated genes from generation to generation and for cancer to start, a critical number of mutations (genetic changes) need to accumulate,” Dr Mugisha says.
Besides the genetic and environmental factors, there are also infectious causes of cancer such as viruses that include HIV, Hepatitis B and C. “These have a carcinogenic potential and because of them, we are seeing many cases of gastrointestinal cancers such as hepatocellular cancers (liver cancer),” Dr Mbidde shares.
He adds that there is also the HPV risk factor for oesophageal, oral and genital cancers. Besides that, bacteria such as helicobacter pylori have been found to be a risk factor for stomach and oesophageal cancer.
Dr Mbidde says unlike in the past when people got cancer and thought it was witchcraft, today, with better awareness, diagnosis is done, hence the increased number of known cases.
In regard to gastrointestinal cancers, he says: “Unfortunately, these present late because there is a lot of room in the intestine that when one gets a tumour, for symptoms to show, it will have filled at least half of the tube.”
Dr Mbidde adds that much as there is a rise in health sensitisation, we are not a medical seeking population. “Therefore, one will come for help when they are experiencing symptoms such as vomiting, obstructed bowels, and swollen stomach yet this would have been avoided if they had done regular medical checkups,” he says.
Dr Mugisha says colorectal carcinomas (cancers affecting the colon and rectum) such as adenocarcinomas of the colon and rectum, carcinoid tumors and colorectal lymphoma are the most common of the gastrointestinal cancers and they increase at 10 per cent per annum. “This is a very high increase but it should also be noted that the trend is noted over a long period of time,” he says.
Dr Mbidde explains that gastrointestinal cancers have no one way of treatment but follow a multi-modality regimen. “This regimen consists of surgery where the tumour is cut out, then the patient either goes for radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy depending on the specific type of cancer,” he says.
Dr Mbidde adds that cancer treatment is very costly and calls on government to invest in this area.
“Government should lobby multinational organisations as it did for people living with HIV to access ARVs. That way, the treatment costs will reduce. People should also know their rights so that they can advocate and receive all treatment methods,” he says.