Commemorating Cancer Awareness Week

03 August 2020 | Health

During the first week of August, the Cancer Association of Namibia (CAN) traditionally commemorates Cancer Awareness Week. This year, with Covid-19 creating many (unwanted and disliked) challenges, CAN won’t host any public days and campaigns, but focus (digitally and via the media) on the importance of the human immune system.

What is the immune system?
The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defend the body against infection by attacking germs, protecting against harmful substances and fighting cell changes so that we can stay as healthy as possible. The main parts of the immune system are the white blood cells, antibodies, the complement system, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and the bone marrow.
Five signs of a weak immune system are:
1) Frequent and recurrent colds, pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, meningitis or skin infections.
2) Chronic Inflammation and infection of internal organs.
3) Blood disorders such as low platelet counts or anaemia, wounds healing slowly.
4) Digestive problems such as cramping, loss of appetite, nausea and chronic diarrhoea.
5) Delayed growth and development.

Can I damage my immune system?
The five most common and unsuspecting ways we weaken our immune system without often knowing are:
1) Inactivity. Sitting around for long periods of time has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and early death. Regular exercise, movement and fresh air is highly recommended.
2) Overtraining. Exercising regularly is great for your overall health and your immune system, but overexerting the body places strain on your system and creates an imbalance that may become dangerous.
3) Poor stress management. Stress in terms of pressure to perform or execute tasks in lower, regular levels is normal. However, chronic stress, poor management thereof, lack of rest, relaxation and exercise turns tension highly toxic.
4) Excessive alcohol intake and tobacco use are both scientifically linked to various non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular, hypertension, obesity, cancer, diabetes and mental health issues, in addition to directly affect the immune system (tired, lethargic, easy to get colds and flu, etc.).
5) Sleep deprivation remains a problem globally as we move to an ever-speeding society of “more to do, less time to do it”. Your body (including immune system) needs rest and recuperate to rebuild cells and heal itself.

How can I boost my immune system?
• Do not smoke or use tobacco products.
• Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
• Eat a diet that is high in fibre, fruits and vegetables.
• Drink enough clean water (at least 6-8 large glasses a day).
• Exercise regularly.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Get adequate sleep and mental rest.
• Try to minimize stress.
• Take steps to avoid infections such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
• Prevent immune compromising diseases (HIV, HPV, HBV) by smarter lifestyle choices (safe sex), get vaccinated or stay on treatments if infected.

Who is most vulnerable?
Why do we see more diseases in older people? There’s an irony in living longer: The longer we live, the more likely we are to see our bodies decline and become weak. This is the part of nature taking its toll in humans too, as the immune system itself is not immune. This is known as immune senescence, which is the term to describe the tendency for an aging immune system to allow more infections, cancers and diseases to take hold and allow natural selection (survival of the fittest) to take place as, sadly, we are not naturally meant to live forever.
However, we can boost our immune systems as mentioned above, in addition to avoiding over exposure to sunlight (while vitamin D from sunlight does help support healthy immune function, too much UV radiation can alter your DNA, ultimately boosting your risk of cancer and for cold sores) and limit exposure to carcinogens. Also avoid man-made chemicals, including hydrocarbons, as much as possible.
Covid-19 brings along a whole new set of challenges to immune-compromised persons.
Exposure to new diseases allows our bodies to sometimes gradually build antibodies. In most instances, preventative immune booster vaccines do assist, but currently the best way to help us all from losing the battle against Covid-19 is to wash hands regularly, sanitize and remain immune-focused (social distancing to try avoid possible exposure and boosting the immune system to try fight the disease if our bodies naturally can).
The unfortunate reality is that persons with a vulnerable immune systems, including those with underlying medical conditions (cancer, heart, diabetes, HIV, etc.) and the older aged community, have weakened immune systems and need to be extra cautious.
This cancer awareness week let us become “immune smart” to become not only cancer, but also Covid-19 aware.

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