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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals > Cancer

Cancer is a serious illness that can affect many parts of the body. Cancer starts when some cells begin to grow very quickly in an abnormal way, causing growths (tumors). Sometimes, tumors go away without treatment. But many tumors get larger or spread, causing health problems in several parts of the body. This is cancer. Most growths do not become cancer, but some do. Once upon a time cancer was unusual. Today it is very common.

What causes cancer?

A factory spews smoke from a chimney.
Not all cancers are caused by industrial pollution. But where there is industrial pollution, there is cancer.

One cause of the increase in cancer throughout the world is the increasing amount of industrial pollution and toxic chemicals in our environment and in our bodies. The increasing number of cancers in people living in or near highly polluted areas should lead our governments to act quickly to protect people’s health. Cancer could be reduced by better regulating the kinds and amounts of chemicals industries are permitted to use, how they are used, and how they are disposed of.

Several types of cancer are known to be caused by toxic chemicals. These include cancer of the lungs, bladder, liver, breast, brain, blood (leukemia), multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A receptionist smiles at a woman who sits beneath a sign reading "Breast Cancer Screening Every Afternoon."

Warning signs or a test showing something may be wrong should not be ignored. See a health worker for advice and treatment right away.

People exposed to toxic chemicals over a long time have a greater risk of getting these cancers than people with little or no toxic exposures. Knowing about their risk may help them get treatment early.

Finding and treating cancer early

Finding cancer early can often save a person’s life, because the person can get treatment before the cancer spreads. Some warning signs of cancer are tiredness, chronic weight loss, lumps, and pain in the body. These can be signs of other illnesses as well. One way to find out if a person has cancer is to have a test that takes a few cells from the affected part of the body. Someone trained to recognize cancer examines the cells with a microscope.

Traditional and modern cancer treatments

Cancer affects people in different ways, and there is not one treatment that works for every person. Western medicine, Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional medicines around the world all have treatments and ways of promoting better health for people with cancer. Unfortunately, none of them has a cure that works every time.

 A group of people sit and talk beneath a sign which reads "Community Health Center Cancer Support Group Today."
If you have cancer, it is helpful to seek the friendship and advice of others who have cancer or have survived it.

The best cancer treatments promote general health and well-being and involve the person in her own treatment. When seeking treatment, go to a doctor or other healer you know and trust.

The people who understand cancer best are those who have survived it. Every cancer survivor has her or his own story about what helped and what did not.

Cancer sometimes requires treatment with very strong medicines that cause hard to tolerate side effects. Cancer is rarely cured by just one kind of treatment, whether it is drugs, herbal remedies, diet, or other therapies. The best treatment combines physical treatments, such as cancer drugs or acupuncture, with promoting well-being by eating healthy foods. Emotional and spiritual support is also important, through support groups, counseling, prayer, or meditation.

When cancer cannot be cured

Some cancers can be cured but others cannot, especially if the cancer has spread to several parts of the body.

Often, when cancer is found late, there is no cure. Then it may be best to stay at home in the care of family. This time can be very difficult. A person with cancer should eat as well as possible, and get plenty of rest. Medicines for pain, anxiety, and sleeping problems can make a person with cancer more comfortable. Talking with someone close can help prepare for death, and plan for the family’s future. Caregivers can sometimes find support and help providing care from a hospice (an organization that helps people in the last stages of life).

Breast cancer

Breast cancer has many causes, including exposure to toxic chemicals from pesticides, oil, cleaning products, and air pollution. If a woman’s mother or sisters have had breast cancer, she may have a greater chance of getting it too. Breast cancer is most common in women over 50.

Breast cancer usually grows slowly, and is sometimes cured if found early. Women can watch for signs of breast cancer by examining their breasts themselves. Look for lumps or unusual discharge from the nipples. If a woman does this once a month, she will be familiar with how her breasts look and feel, and will notice any changes.

How to examine your breasts

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  1. Look at your breasts in a mirror. Raise your arms over your head. Look for any change in the shape of your breasts, or any swelling or changes in the skin or nipples. Then put your arms at your sides and check your breasts again.
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  3. Lie down. Keeping your fingers flat, press your breast and feel for any lumps.
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  5. Be sure to touch every part of your breast. It helps to use the same pattern every time, such as a spiral or rows of straight lines.

What to do if you find a lump

If the lump is smooth or rubbery, and moves under the skin when you push it with your fingers, do not worry about it. But if it is hard, has an uneven shape, and is painless, keep watching it, especially if the lump is in only one breast and does not move even when you push it. See a health worker if the lump is still there after your next monthly bleeding. This may be a sign of cancer. Also see a health worker if there is a discharge from the nipples that looks like blood or pus.