Cancerlitis – do you have it?

He’s got it, she’s got it, you’ve got it, we’ve got it, I’ve got it. But, if it is not infectious how did you get it? By hex-it? (A poor attempt at a Dr Seussism).

The topic ‘cancerlitis’ was thrust upon me. I grabbed at the opportunity as a friend, who had breast cancer over 10 years ago, had also asked me to write on it…with me being a cancerlitis sufferer myself.

What is cancerlitis?

There is no Oxford definition – the closest word is ‘hypochondriac’ (a person who is abnormally anxious about their health). Cancerlitis involves the fear of cancer and the concern that every twitch, pain, lump and bump could be the dreaded C word.

There are two types:

Cancerlitis A: (like hepatitis A; technically curable) The person has never had cancer before, but due to a variety of reasons there is worry that this could be cancer.

Cancerlitis B: (like hepatitis B; not curable) Not worse, but harder to manage. The person has had cancer before and is constantly worrying about each small little ache, translating into “It’s back!”

Managing this condition requires a detailed understanding of firstly the personality of the cancerlitis A sufferer and then the cancerlitis B sufferer.

Cancerlitis A sufferer 

So, like me, nicknamed Chicken Little or Melman (the hypochondriac giraffe in Madagascar) by my kids, you’re stressing about the scourge of the 21st century…cancer. You know at least five people who have been afflicted, and contemplating at least two approaches:

1- Head in the sand like an ostrich.You’ll just live with that vague ache and if, by chance, it is the big C, let’s hope you go quickly.

2- Or (like me) you rattle with the number of supplements you take; look green from all the extracted juice you consume; investigate the twinge by consulting at least three specialists; exercise under duress; and wonder if life on a tropical island might not be safer.

Fortunately, my anxiety is tempered by a cool, ultra-calm emergency medicine specialist, who stresses about nothing unless eminent death. Death…this word is so closely linked to cancerlitis; maybe looking at it more closely can help.

Death through the ages

Perspective is looking at causes of death through the ages. If we lived in prehistoric times, there was no recorded cancer (no records at all). Death due to saber-tooth, mammoth or ice age was guaranteed, and sounds rather Grim Reaper…ish (no pain meds)!

We have the isolated documented breast cancer diagnosis from the ancient Egyptians, who in recording ‘instructions concerning tumours on the breast’ declared there was no treatment. Hippocrates (father of medicine) declared in a single case report that treatment hastened death. You would have to have taken your pick between war, slavery and lions. None sound appetising, not even lions.

Living in the Middle Ages, a few more breast cancers were documented. Your options, at this stage, were: surgery with heated prongs, and vicious knives and instruments for amputation.

The 18th century was the start of the age of enlightenment; leeks were used to feed and treat. Death by plague and war sounds more humane, not death by childbirth though.

Up and till the 19th century, cancer was not a major concern for women or men. The reason being: the average life expectancy was 30 to 40 years. Most people died of plagues, simple bacteria, and in childbirth.

Do you prefer to live now? Not much choice really. Pollution, superbugs, killer viruses, cancer and terrorists. What can one do? Head for Mars…don’t know…saw The Martian, not convinced.

Step one is to accept what you can’t change and improve what you can.

Step two, in the words of Sun Tzu, The Art of War, is “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Get to know your enemy

Let’s look closer at the double agent causing cancer. It is a double agent as it was your cell that turned rogue.Remember, cancer is like a parasite, like a psychotic terrorist. A cell that divides on its own without a signal, refusing to obey orders to stop growing, developing resistance to the bodies’ fighter cells, sending out small terrorist raids, developing the ability to travel in blood vessels and lymph vessels (spy cells), and eventually becomes invincible, taking over and killing the host. No wonder, we all have cancerlitis!

You may not be able to prevent this happening. Cancer is a random genetic event – a reverse lotto. Over 60% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors. But you should: 1- Know your family history of any cancers, as well as other disease profiles. 2 – Live an earth-friendly life (no proof here).

Combat strategy

You can protect your body and environment so you can kill abnormal cells before they clone and spread.


Diet essentials are phytochemicals.

The cabbage family, especially broccoli and Brussel sprouts, was called, by Hippocrates, the vegetable of a thousand virtues. Studies on cabbage today, show it has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Garlic and onions not just to ward off vampires.

Green tea containing catechins, such as epigallocatechin gallate, has a strong anti-cancer property and prevents abnormal cells from sniffing out ways to spread.

Berries of different colours, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and blackberries contain anthocyanidins.

Turmeric, considered the spice of life, plays a role in decreasing cancers, particularly bowel.

Tomatoes contain lycopene and have an impact on protecting against prostate cancer.

Omega, soya and citrus have also been shown to have protective properties.

Red wine with resveratrol, but not more than two glasses.

Dark chocolate containing polyphenol, not chocolate candy but the real McCoy.


The good news is that physical activity may well lower a woman’s cumulative exposure to oestrogen and progesterone, and thereby inhibit cancer of the breast.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated the impact of physical activity, both at work and during leisure time, on the risk of breast cancer in a cohort of 25 624 premenopausal and post-menopausal women. They adjusted the results for potentially confounding variables, such as the known risk factors, and reassessed the women over a five-year period. Women who exercised for four hours a week during leisure time, had a 37% reduction in the incidence of breast cancer.

Defence mechanisms

What else can you do to prevent the sky from falling on your head and decreasing your cancerlitis A anxiety?

Vaccinate your daughters and sons against human papillomavirus (causes cervical cancer) and hepatitis B (causes liver cancer).

Regular mole mapping is advised, if you’re fair skinned/have many nevi/a family history of melanoma.

Pap smears yearly in sexually active women.

Breast exams from breast development.

Mammograms from 40 or 50 years.

Colonoscopy and gastroscopes if you have a family history of GIT cancers, and a baseline from 50.

Forget the tumour markers, those blood tests that tell you if you have cancer are highly inaccurate.

Know your toxins, we all have them: sweets; take-out; obesity; smoking; excess alcohol; lack of exercise. No one is perfect…change one small thing at a time.

Surround yourself with sense

The problem with a Melman personality is what symptoms and signs should you take to a doctor and check? We have all heard about the young girl with breast cancer who was told, “You are too young…that lump is not cancer,” or the lady with aches and pains being told, “This is just aches and pains,” and it turns out to be secondary bone cancer.

If a pain or ache is not going away, it needs investigation. All medical conditions need a sensible explanation and we don’t have eyes on our fingers. If you have a breast lump, you need to see a radiologist who specialises in breast problems (the films need to be read twice) and when in doubt, a core needle biopsy (not a surgical biopsy) needs to be performed under radiology guidance.

Listen to your body

It’s normal to have vague aches and pains; occasional constipation; hip twinges; eyelid twitches; menopausal flush; creaky joints; and to feel new bumps and have age spots. But, if lumps get bigger, spots are new, and pain persists for over two weeks, go and see your friendly GP. Ensure a good history, a full examination and relevant investigations. If the symptoms persist and you’re not happy with the explanations, go for a second opinion.

Management of cancerlitis A

Sensible health screening; healthy living; a good dose of listening to your body; spiritual enlightenment (to each his/her own); and understanding that cancer does not equal immediate death for most people today.

Try not to live with guilt regarding your ‘not-so-perfect-life’, rather enjoy life by understanding that it’s about moments, not money; people and not possessions. This goes a long way to ensure Chicken Little is less worried about the sky and looking more at the scenery.

Cancerlitis B sufferer

For all going through a cancer diagnosis, it’s horribly unexpected. It’s not asked for and I have yet to have one newly diagnosed person say, “Chemo please.”

Having a cancer diagnosis is like being mugged, in the middle of the day, in a leafy suburb. So unexpected, and it’s like asking the person to walk down the same road again, in the middle of the day, the next day – telling them it’s going to be fine.

Managing cancerlitis B

Cancerlitis B is like hep B, you have it for life. The key is in managing the condition: exercise; diet; lifestyle; and reading your ‘forever changed’ body.

The rule of twos:

Two weeks is fine to have a twinge.

Four weeks is not fine; needs a medical assessment and good explanation.

Six weeks needs a better explanation or more tests.

Once you are on chronic meds – any ones, from blood pressure to cancer meds – they all have the potential of side effects. And, if you have had chemo, or gone through menopause (due to medical reasons, such as chemo or medication), you’re going to have changes within your body…like with aging. It’s not easy. Having had a cancer diagnosis will make most people more anxious about possible recurrences.

NB! Stay away from Dr Google! And, in true Dr Seuss style, “So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life is a great  balancing act.”

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Prof Carol-Ann Benn

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.