Behind Malaysia's increase in cancer cases

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Health experts have pointed to lifestyle changes and increasingly unhealthy eating patterns linked to processed food as some of the factors behind the rising trend of cancer among Malaysians, including young people. 

Dr Zalina Abu Zaid, a senior lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), said this was also parallel with the rising rate of obesity in the country. 

"In Malaysia, one in two adults is now overweight or obese," Zalina, of UPM's faculty of medicine and health sciences, told MalaysiaNow. 

"Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia's obesity level is high – nearly 50%." 

She said excessive weight was a main factor in contracting chronic illnesses including cancer. 

The increase in the number of senior citizens has also contributed to the jump in statistics.

Zalina said some factors could still change as they depend on people's lifestyle choices. Non-modifiable cancer risk factors meanwhile include gender, age and genetics.

The National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM) recently reported that some 20,000 cases were detected each year, with the average age of patients at above 40.

Over the past two years, though, new patients have emerged from the late 20s to early 30s age bracket. 

NCSM also said that more children were being diagnosed with cancer. 

Public health expert Zainal Ariffin Omar said cases were on the rise as more people were undergoing health screening. 

"Cancer risk factors include smoking, obesity, unhealthy diets, alcohol consumption and other chronic diseases," he said. 


Some 4.8 million Malaysians are estimated to be smokers from a total population of 32 million, with 27,200 deaths linked to the habit. 

While a so-called generational endgame was recently proposed through the  Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022, the bill itself is currently under review. 

Zalina also cited studies showing that young people spend more time in front of their computers or phones than they do engaged in physical activity. 

One estimate by Ernst & Young Advisory found that Malaysians spend about 14 hours a day using a digital device, with 87% of that time spent on the internet. 

In terms of nutrition, Zalina said that diets heavy on fast food and processed food containing fat, starch or sugar contribute to weight gain which, in turn, increases the risk of cancer. 

"Scientific evidence shows that glycemic load – increased blood glucose and insulin after eating a meal – is the cause of endometrial cancer," she said. 

Fast food meanwhile is also processed and contains only low levels of micronutrients despite its high energy loads. 

Zalina also recommended cutting down on red meat and processed meat, both of which have been found to contain carcinogenic chemicals.

"Our bodies will convert nitrates into nitrosamines which are carcinogenic and increase the risk of cancer," she said. 

"The recommended intake of red meat is less than 500g per week." 

Zainal meanwhile urged the youth to remain physically active. 

"Move about more," he said. "Don't just sit around all day." 

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