ET Bureau Aug 07, 2019, 07.52 AM IST

Mumbai: The growing incidence of cancer in India might not be only because of changing lifestyle or increased “westernisation”, according to a new study by Dr. Mohandas Mallath of Tata Medical Hospital and his student Robert Smith which has found increased life expectancy as one of the contributing factors. 

The study looked at the disease through ancient Hindu Vedic scriptures to the colonial time and found that the disease dates back to 17th century in India. However, routine diagnosis began only in the 19th century, after Western medicine gained acceptance throughout the country. The incidence of cancer started to increase in the 20th century, when life expectancy began to increase in India, the authors wrote in their research, which was published in the Journal of Global Oncology. 

“Over a million cases of cancer are being reported in India every year, and everybody thinks this is because we have are adopting a ‘westernised’ lifestyle and abandoning our traditional way of living, but that’s not the case,” said Dr Mallath. “The longer the individual lives, the more likely they will get cancer. It is accumulation of various genetic defects.” 

As per the study, the incidence of cancer varies widely among different states according to varying health and demography. That’s why, the cancer burden might be seen more in states like Kerala, which has higher life expectancy than a state like Uttar Pradesh. 

The researchers write that between 1860 and 1910, several audits and cancer case series were published by Indian Medical Service doctors across India. The landmark study by cancer research scholars Nath and Grewal used autopsy, pathology, and clinical data between 1917 and 1932 from various medical college hospitals across India to confirm that cancer was a common cause of death among middle-aged and elderly Indians. They also found that India’s cancer burden was apparently low because of the short life expectancy of the natives in those times. 

Dr. Mallath said that his study holds an important lesson for policymakers who seem to be focusing too much on preventing the disease than building centres to treat it. 

“Increased life expectancy will lead to cancer. There are many because of known causes of cancer, but the others are because of genetic reasons associated with ageing; this is why we urgently need to focus on treatment,” said Dr Mallath. 

He said public cancer facilities in India are woefully inadequate and there is a large presence of private cancer care facilities, leading to a few people exploiting the situation by selling vulnerable patients unproven therapies to prevent, cure or control cancer.