Debunking myths on World Cancer Day

Today, 4 February, is World Cancer Day, the international day to raise awareness about cancer. This is a little confusing, since later in the year we also celebrate Daffodil Day, which has a very similar goal. Considering the impact of cancer on the human race, however, I suppose this is one topic that deserves a couple of days in the year.

Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Cancer prevention strategies can include some very basic, everyday tips, like promoting the use of sunblock before venturing into the sun.
Note: The yellow Livestrong wristband is a popular symbol, and fundraising item, of the Livestrong Foundation (formerly the Lance Armstrong Foundation until it changed it’s name folliowing Armstrong’s doping scandal in late 2012). Despite the famous cyclist’s recent fall from grace, there’s no denying the huge contributions made during his professional career, towards cancer research and awareness creation, as well as providing support and inspiration for many living with cancer.
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There is a minor focus difference between World Cancer Day and Daffodil Day – where the latter has a specific focus on raising funds to support cancer research, World Cancer day is all about awareness creation, and busting some of the myths that still exist around the disease.

Specifically, the World Cancer Day website lists 4 common cancer myths, ranging from general societal misconceptions to very personal issues:

Myth 1: Cancer is just a health issue

Truth: Cancer is not just a health issue. It has wide-reaching social, economic, development, and human rights implications.

As such, it is critical that interventions addressing the prevention and control of cancer need to be included in the wider post-2015 global development goals. By spreading the responsibility to address cancer control beyond the health sector, there is a better chance that all the relevant challenges (at individual and community level) can be addressed.

Global policies, however, are not enough – real investments are needed as part of national, country specific cancer control interventions.

Myth 2: Cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries

Truth: Cancer is a global epidemic. It affects all ages and socio-economic groups, with developing countries bearing a disproportionate burden.

This is a no-brainer, really – cancer does not discriminate. If anything, the poor and disenfranchised are hit harder by the disease, and more often than not get sicker and die sooner as a result of cancer. Therefore cancer prevention and control policies and funding must be equally non-discriminatory, with interventions made available to everyone – rich and poor, young and old, in both the developed and the developing world.

Myth 3: Cancer is a death sentence

Truth: Many cancers that were once considered a death sentence can now be cured and for many more people, their cancer can be treated effectively.

To achieve this, however, strategies need to be put in place to facilitate cancer control measures such as breast and cervical cancer screening, as well as improved access to cancer services including medicines and other treatment solutions such as radiotherapy.

Myth 4: Cancer is my fate

Truth: With the right strategies, a third of the most common cancers can be prevented.

Of all treatment strategies, prevention remains the most cost-effective way of reducing the global cancer burden. This not only includes putting in place early detection systems, but also implementing programmes that reduce the level of exposure to risk factors and promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

Another critical prevention strategy is improved knowledge dissemination – helping people understand the risk factors as well as ways of addressing these.

More info

For more information on the above myths about cancer and its control and prevention, have a look at the fact sheets prepared by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). General background information on World Cancer Day 2013 and the UICC is available here.

The Earth is at its perihelion – a timeous reminder to protect yourself against the sun

Every year, around the start of the year, the earth reaches its perihelionits closest point to the sun for the year – and this year the perihelion falls on Wednesday, 2 January. at 05:00 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

The day when the earth passes closest to the sun is called the perihelion after the ancient Greek ‘περί’ or ‘peri’ (near / around) and ‘helios’ (the personification of the Sun in Greek mythology).

Whether it's clear or cloudy, the need to protect yourself against the sun's harmful UV radiation is more critical than ever.(© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it’s clear or cloudy, the need to protect yourself against the sun’s harmful UV radiation is more critical than ever.
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I guess, with the sun passing at its closest, and with it being smack in the middle of summer here in the southern hemisphere, it makes even more sense than usual to be ‘sunsmart’.

With the sun beating down, and skin cancer being more prevalent than ever, the message is to ‘slip, slop, slap and wrap’. To quote the website of the Sunsmart campaign:

  • SLIP into a long-sleeved shirt and into the shade. Generally, fabrics with a tighter weave and darker colours will give you greater protection from the sun. There are also certain fabrics on the market that have a SPF rating.
  • SLOP on plenty of broad-spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors. Read more about using sunscreen.
  • SLAP on a hat with a wide-brim or a cap with flaps – more people get sunburned on their face and neck than any other part of the body.
  • WRAP on a pair of wrap-around sunglasses – UV radiation is just as dangerous to eyesight as it is for the skin.’

To my northern hemisphere friends – remember the sun is not only dangerous in summer; a day out in the winter sun requires all the same precautions needed in summer.

So let this day of the perihelion serve as a reminder to be sunsmart – be responsible, but don’t let that detract from the joys of an active day in the sun. Enjoy it, wherever you are!

Dubious facial hair alert – it’s Movember!

It’s the 1st of November, and summer is well and truly upon us here in the far South. Being November, of course it also means this is Movember – the one month men around the world become heroes for sporting facial hair that would, during any other month, raise serious questions about their state of mind.

Floppy, curly, twisty, bushy, or perfectly groomed, Movember is the month for crafting your own unique moustache – as individual as your fingerprints.

According to the Movember rules, you start the month clean shaven, so herewith the month’s famous last big shave.
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The reason of growing a ‘mo’ during Movember is to help raise awareness about men’s health,  specifically prostate cancer and depression. As stated on the Movember site, “Mo Bros effectively become walking, talking billboards for the 30 days of November and through their actions and words raise awareness by prompting private and public conversation around the often ignored issue of men’s health.”

Movember started in Australia (good on ya, mate!), and has since grown into a truly global movement, with almost 2 million participants in a wide range of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa, Ireland, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Czech Republic. Movember aims to “change established habits and attitudes men have about their health, to educate men about the health risks they face, and to act on that knowledge, thereby increasing the chances of early detection, diagnosis and effective treatment.”

In New Zealand, funds raised through the Movember initiative go specifically to the Cancer Society of New Zealand and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.

You can get involved informally, simply by not shaving your moustache for a month. However, to really go the whole nine yards, why not register through your national Movember website/forum, where you can formally commit to the challenge, and update your progress throughout the month. Different countries have their own unique sites, typically http://<your country code> (simply going to should also redirect to your local site). Committing on such a public forum not only helps to keep you honest (to keep you from shaving your mo for that special date or meeting halfway through the month) but it also means that you officially become part of the Movember fundraising initiative. And, most importantly, you become a registered Mo Bro, part of the global Mo Brotherhood.

Of course it’s not just for men – women are also encouraged to register as ‘Mo Sistas’, in support of the men in their lives.

Day 1 – clean shaven (well, almost), and slightly worried about what this picture is going to look like in 30 days…
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To visit me, Mo Bro Gerry, drop by my Mo Space Page – I will try to update the space every so often and will also be posting updates on this blog, so let this serve as an early dubious facial hair alert.

Let the growing begin… Ready, steady, Mo! 🙂

‘Get the girls out’ on Mammography Day

Today, in the USA, is National Mammography Day. While it is primarily a US-based observance, I thought it apt to dedicate this day’s post to the subject, seeing that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month or Breast Cancer Action month in many parts of the world.

Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among women, with current estimates in the US being that about 12 percent of American women will develop breast cancer at some point during their lives. To address this, steps for early detection is recommended, with one of the most important being an annual mammogram and clinical breast exam for women aged 40 and above.

Mammograms are very low dose breast tissue x-rays, used to pick up breast changes, and breast cancers in particular. Mammograms are critical because they can detect breast changes (lumps/thickenings) which are so small they cannot be felt. As a result, they increase chances of survival through early detection of possible cancer.

Additional tools and techniques that can be used as complimentary to mammography include ultrasound and MRI scanning.

It’s October, so to use the message of New Zealand’s amusing ‘BreastScreen Aotearoa’ campaign, “it’s time to get the girls out” and go for a screening check-up.
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Being a male, I can obviously not comment on the discomfort involved in receiving a mammogram, but my wife assures me that its not nearly as painful or uncomfortable as people make it out to be. The statistics agree – in general less than 5% of women experience a mammogram as painful. However, as with most things in life, bad experiences tend to receive most ‘air time’, hence creating the impression that many more women have bad experiences with mammography than is actually the case.

Despite any discomfort, there is no argument that it is a procedure worth doing – mammograms have a success rate of between 80 and 90%, and this rate gets higher in older women with less dense breast tissue. Thus detection accuracy increase with age, which is great, as the chance of getting breast cancer shows a similar age-related increase.

In closing, a word of advice from the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation:
“The best way to ensure early detection of breast cancer is to supplement screening mammograms with general breast awareness – know your breasts/know the changes to look and feel for – and see your family doctor without delay, if you notice any changes that are not normal for you.”

Salami – good when it’s meat, less so when it’s science

Today is a celebration of that greatest of cured meats – it’s Salami Day.

Salami is a cured, fermented and air-dried sausage-style meat, usually made from pork and/or beef, but also sometimes from a range of other meats including venison and turkey (and even, apparently, shark and swordfish in Japan). The meat is minced together with a range of spices, garlic, minced fat, herbs and wine or vinegar, and left to ferment for a day or so before being stuffed into a (usually edible) casing and hung out to cure. The casing is sometimes treated with an edible mold culture which adds flavour and helps protect the salami from spoilage.

It first became popular with South European peasants, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require refrigeration, and can last at room temperature for a month or longer. (It is this feature that also makes it one of my personal favourite foods to take on multi-day hikes – few things beat a couple of slices of salami on some cracker-bread over lunch, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.)

A traditional aged, peppered Hungarian salami – finger-licking good.
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Of course, in science, salami has a very different connotation. The phrase ‘salami science’ refers to a scientific publishing tactic where the same body of research is published in more than one journal, or, more commonly, the results from a single research project is sliced up into multiple smaller research results (spread over time, for example) and published separately. This second option is also referred to as ‘salami slicing’ because you are effectively slicing your single research salami into a whole bunch of smaller slices, spread across different publications.

This is an unfortunate practice because it can skew research data, and it makes it more difficult to get the ‘big picture’ with regards to a specific body of research. It is, however, the result of the way the value or worth of a scientist is measured in the scientific community – the more you publish, the better you are rated, and the more funding you can attract. This ‘publish or perish’ phenomenon is well-known in science, where the size of an individual or group’s scientific output is overemphasized, rewarding quantity over quality.

Nature magazine has gone so far as to say that salami science “threatens the sustainability of scientific publishing as we know it”. Fighting this practice means more time and effort have to be spent by journals and publications to ensure that the same results have not been published elsewhere, thus increasing the workload on already stretched staff and peer reviewers.

Of course quantity is not the only criterion used to judge or measure a scientist’s research output – references and citations also play an important role. However, formulae for quantifying research output is often oversimplified and skewed towards quantity. To again quote Nature magazine, “The challenge then is not only to establish more sophisticated means to assess the worth of a researcher’s scientific contribution, but for bodies making such assessments to make it plain that it is scientific rigour and not merely numerical output that will lead to success”.

It definitely seems slicing your salami thin is better when you’re talking meat than when you’re talking science. In fact, referring to the meaty version, it’s probably a very good idea to slice it thin – when it comes to processed meat (including salami), moderation is definitely a good thing. In a report in the Guardian, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has warned that excessive intake of processed meat can increase your risk of developing cancer.

According to the WCRF, “If everyone ate no more than 70g of processed meat – the equivalent of three rashers of bacon – a week, about 3,700 fewer people a year in Britain would be diagnosed with bowel cancer”.

So, in celebration of Salami Day, get yourself a good quality salami (paying a bit more really is worth it when it comes to enjoying a good salami) and enjoy a taste of meat-heaven.

Just don’t overdo it.

And don’t cheat with your research. 🙂

Daffodil Day and the ongoing fight against cancer

It’s Daffodil Day today, August 31st. Well, it’s Daffodil Day in New Zealand, to be exact – Australian Daffodil Day happened on the 24th of this month already. The US, bless them, seem to have a whole bunch of different Daffodil Days across different states. (With Daffodils being a spring flower, it obviously makes sense that most US Daffodil Days happen earlier in the year, around February, and not August/September, as it does down here in the South.)

Daffodil Day is all about cancer – raising awareness of the disease, raising funds for cancer related research, and creating a support network for individuals suffering from the disease.

The reason why the daffodil flower is used internationally by Cancer Societies as the global symbol of hope for people living with cancer, is that it is one of the first, and one of the strongest, flowers of spring, and as such is a symbol for hope and renewal, new life, new beginnings and new possibilities.
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Cancer is an incredibly pervasive, prevalent disease – here in New Zealand it is the leading cause of death in the country –  and I’m sure there are very few people who are not in some way fairly directly affected by it. My dad died of cancer in his liver and colon; my mother in law is a breast-cancer survivor; just about everyone I know has someone close to them who has either died from, or is living with, the disease.

In a nutshell, cancer occurs when cells in the body accumulate genetic changes (due to various factors), resulting in a loss of growth control. Normal cells grow, divide and die in an orderly manner, in response to signals from the body and the environment. When cells become cancerous, however, they fail to respond to the normal signals, and start growing and dividing in an uncontrolled manner. These out-of-control cells can spread through the body via the bloodstream or lymph vessels (a process called metastasis) and continue to grow and replace normal tissue. It is the fact that it’s the body’s own cells that go crazy and effectively turn against their host, that makes it such a complex disease to treat.

As mentioned, one of the critical focus areas of Daffodil Day is raising money to support research into finding cures for the disease.

Over the years, literally billions of dollars have been spent on cancer research, and it’s quite a sobering thought when you realise that, in spite of all this, the death rate from the disease has changed little over the past 50 or so years. As new therapies are developed, cancer also adapts and evolves, finding new ways to kill.

Now this does not mean all is in vain – millions of people have been saved from the therapies that have been developed. All it means is that there is no room for complacency, and new and more effective cancer therapies are continually needed to stay ahead of, or at least keep up with, the disease.

In my job as a science photographer, I interact with a wide range of research and technology organisations, and one of the most inspiring of these is the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research – New Zealand’s leading medical research institute, and a registered charity based in Wellington, NZ. The reason I mention this fact is that one of their main fields of research is cancer (they also research cures for asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases) and they are one of the organisations supported through the proceeds of fundraising events like Daffodil Day.

One of the main fields of cancer research that the Malaghan Institute focuses on is Immunotherapy, which basically involves using the immune system and it’s unique properties to complement existing cancer treatments. As they explain, “Immune cells are specific and have the capacity to discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have powerful effector capacity and can recruit inflammatory cells to destroy neoplastic tissue, and they can migrate to different tissues and eliminate residual metastatic disease.” So, similar techniques to those used in helping the immune system recognise and fight contagious diseases (such as vaccination, etc), can also be used to help the immune system recognise cancer cells and to strengthen their ability to destroy them.

Another more recent research subject at the Institute is cancer stem cell research. Cancer stem cells are cancer’s evil root – these tumor initiating cells are highly resistant to drug and radiation treatment – and the focus of the research is on finding safe and effective ways to eradicate them.

Researchers at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research are conducting research into Immunotherapy, unleashing the full cancer-fighting potential of the immune systems of cancer patients to fight the disease.
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Organisations like the Malaghan Institute, and many others like them across the world, are doing incredible work to address the continually evolving threat of cancer, and really need all the support they can get. It’s a scary, scary topic, and it’s good to know there are talented, committed scientists and researchers out there facing the challenge head on.

World No Tobacco Day

The aim of World No Tobacco Day is to encourage 24 hours of abstinence from tobacco use internationally. This day also draws attention to the detrimental health effects and widespread damage caused by the consumption of tobacco, which currently plays a role in more than 5 million deaths worldwide each year.

World No Tobacco Day, and what it aims to achieve, resonates with me at a particularly personal level, having lost a father on this day 12 years ago to cancer most likely related to a lifetime of smoking.

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day is “Tobacco industry interference”. The campaign is focused on the need to highlight and fight the tobacco industry’s continued attempts to undermine global efforts to control the use of tobacco.
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