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More than one hundred thousand South Africans are diagnosed with cancer each year, while one in every 11 cancer patients are diagnosed with blood cancer, according to latest statistics from The Global Cancer Observatory.

With this in mind, Dr. Gary Sopher, Director of Oncology at Novartis South Africa, emphasises that the importance of early detection cannot be understated.

“As September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, this makes it the ideal time for South Africans to learn more about possible warning signs and be more cognisant of what your body may be telling you,” he says.

“There have been several exciting medical advancements and breakthroughs over the past five years, including potentially curative treatment options. So, knowing what to look for and embarking on timely treatment journeys can profoundly impact patient outcomes.”

Understanding blood cancer

Put simply, haematologic or blood cancers involve the uncontrolled and pathological growth and replication of the cells that make up the components of blood. The affected blood cells play many important roles in our body: white blood cells fight off infection; red cells transport oxygen throughout the body; and platelets help to stop bleeding by clotting the blood in cuts or bruises.

Blood cancer, however, disrupts these cellular functions, resulting in symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, anaemia, repeated infections, increased bleeding, bruising, spots formed beneath the skin, and bleeding gums.

“Although symptoms such as fatigue, increased bleeding or bruising, or the swelling of lymph nodes are also common to many less severe illnesses, symptoms that persist for longer than two weeks may be indicative of more serious problems such as blood cancer. At this point, it’s advisable to consult a doctor.”

Some of the most common types of blood cancer include leukaemia, melanoma, multiple myeloma and lymphoma, and together, these affect thousands of South African households and families each year.

According to the World Health Organization, for example, 9,774 South Africans were diagnosed with blood cancer in 2020. Additionally, the latest National Cancer Registry report reveals that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was among the top five reported invasive cancers in South Africa.

Groundbreaking medical advancements

Unfortunately, traditional chemotherapy treatments often indiscriminately destroy both cancerous and healthy cells, resulting in negative side effects such as persistent nausea, infections, anaemia, and hair loss. As a global leader in innovative medicine, Novartis is therefore specifically exploring targeted, cell and gene, radioligand, and immunotherapy treatments with the goal of developing more effective medicines for patients.

“We are actively researching and developing more curative treatments for cancer, which means that many patients can now survive illnesses which may have been fatal only a decade ago. These new treatments are also more manageable and tolerable, empowering patients to truly live happy and fulfilled lives,” states Dr. Sopher.

Targeted therapies, especially, are changing the fields of oncology and haematology, vastly improving patients’ vitality and outlook.

“Incredible progress is being made with advanced, personalised treatments such as CAR-T cell therapy. This involves extracting healthy white blood cells from the patient’s body which are then modified and amplified in a laboratory setting, heightening these cells’ ability to find and destroy cancerous cells while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue.”

Novartis is also performing cutting-edge research into monoclonal antibodies with the ability to target proteins on the surface of cancer cells, as well as Janus kinase (JAK) inhibition, which aims to impede the Janus Kinase enzyme responsible for bone marrow cancers such as myelofibrosis and polycythemia vera.

Finally, South Africa has been selected as one of 30 countries to participate in an international clinical trial for a new targeted therapy for leukaemia which is set to commence within the next few months. This study will seek to fundamentally change the way in which resistant forms of chronic myeloid leukaemia are treated, says Dr. Sopher.

“It’s a large project that will take years of in-depth, specialised research. The result, though, may change oncology and haematology for years to come, and we are hopeful that it will immensely improve the lives of not only leukaemia patients, but cancer patients in general.

“Ultimately, blood cancer remains a serious disease, but the good news for patients is that positive progress is being made. Your wisest course of action is therefore to seek medical assistance and do the necessary checks as early as possible.”

Tips to honour Blood Cancer Awareness Month:

In honour of Blood Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Sopher recommends that South Africans:

· Make healthy lifestyle choices such as exercising daily, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, consuming less processed meat, and getting regular medical check-ups;

· Avoid smoking cigarettes or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol;

· Research your family medical history, with an emphasis on cancer;

· Listen to your body and seek medical advice if you continuously experience fatigue, abnormal bleeding, or have any unnatural lumps that don’t pass after a couple of weeks;

· Seek out support groups if you are going through treatment; and

· Show emotional support to any friends or family members with cancer.

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