What is cancer?

Almost everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer, some harder than others. According to Hospital Authority’s latest official statistics, the number of new cases of cancer hit a historical high of 30,318 in 2015, with numbers increasing by 1.8% for men and 3% for women. What is cancer exactly and that are the most common types in Hong Kong? Healthy Matters provides you an overview.

 

The biology of cancer

We are all made up of millions of cells, cells that make up our skin, our brain and all other (specialized) organs. Most of our cells divide day in and day out to repair and maintain our body. Cell division, also known as mitosis, occurs without us knowing but it is carefully regulated by an intricate system so that cells do not divide uncontrollably. Sometimes one or several cells “go crazy” and continue to multiply: this erratic behaviour is the hallmark of cancer. Unfortunately, these “crazy cells” can ermerge in pretty much any tissue or organ, which is why there are over 100 types of cancer.

When cancerous cells multiply uncontrollably, they can form lumps, masses or tissues which are called tumors. Benign tumors generally demonstrate limited growth and stay in one place, whereas cells from malignant tumors can travel through the body and damage tissues along the way and/or nestle in healthy tissues to further multiply and form more tumors.

As if spreading cancer and more tumors is not enough bad news, malignant tumors are also known to grow rapidly. This rapid growth is accompanied with a need for nutrients, but often the existing blood vessels cannot keep up with the increased demand. Tumors are quite smart and in response to this nutrient deficit, the tumor elicits a process called angiogenesis. During angiogenesis, blood vessels form in nutrient-deprived tissues and in this case, in and around the malignant tumor. These newly formed blood vessels, will provide adequate nutrients to the malignant tumour, allowing it to grow further.

 

Most common cancer types in Hong Kong

According to the Hong Kong Department of Health, in 2015 cancer was the number one cause of death accounting for 30.6% [1] of registered deaths in Hong Kong. The most common cancer types by gender in Hong Kong are listed below:

Male:
  • Lung cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Prostate cancer

Female:
  • Lung cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

 

Cancer treatments

Fortunately, cancer research has improved treatment options and survival rates. Depending on the type of cancer, several treatment modalities exist. The main goal remains to eradicate cancer. Doctors may combine treatment modalities in order to tackle the cancer more effectively, while decreasing its chances of returning. For example, a tumor is first shrunk with radiotherapy before being removed surgically, or the growth is slowed down with chemotherapy before other therapies are used to eradicate the tumor. Here is a concise list of cancer treatments:
  • Surgery: removal of the tumours/cancerous tissues
  • Chemotherapy: drugs that kill cancer cells and/or slow down their growth
  • Radiation therapy: high doses of radiation to kill or shrink tumours
  • Immunotherapy: stimulation of the immune system to fight the cancer
  • Targeted therapy: molecules that target the “crazy cells” to stop them from growing, spreading and dividing
  • Hormone therapy: applicable in some breast or prostate cancers
  • Stem cell transplants: applicable in some blood-related cancers

 

The Hong Kong healthcare system: private versus public

In Hong Kong the healthcare system is divided between private and public sector. Both offer a high level of expertise but the major differences lie in:
  • Freedom of choice is possible in private sector as you can choose your oncologist and hospital. In the public sector, you must seek services in your cluster first and the choice of doctors and nurses is based on who is on call on your treatment day(s).
  • Comfort and service, which are also higher in private hospitals as they offer a range of packages to increase patients’ comfort level during their stay/treatment.
  • Cost, which is significantly higher in private sector.
  • Waiting times, which are significantly longer in public hospitals compared to private ones.

 

This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and not sponsored. It is informative only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.