LEH: The rough terrain, the snow-capped peaks, the winding roads and monasteries -- the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir is the abode of nature's raw and untouched beauty. The region might be a haven for adventure travellers, but all is not well for the local residents.
The high altitude, exposure to excessive ultraviolet (UV) rays, lack of oxygen and the sedentary lifestyle of the locals are leading to a rise in cancer cases, particularly gastrointestinal (GI) and of the skin, according to medical experts from New Delhi's premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Twenty-four of the experts attended a five-day medical camp organised here by Ashoka Mission and SNM Hospital that focused on providing free medical aid to the people of the Leh and Kargil belt, especially those living in far-off villages and belonging to financially poor backgrounds. The camp -- now in its 25th year -- saw more than 2,700 patients attending and getting examined.
"Out of 100 patients, 60-65 cases are of GI cancer. Unfortunately, in this belt, there is no proper record or data of cases of cancer. The only numbers we get are from the hospital," Dr Atul Sharma, Oncologist at the Dr B.R.A Institute-Rotary Cancer Hospital (BIRCH) at AIIMS, told this visiting IANS correspondent.
Dr Sharma said the rise in GI cancer is mostly because of the unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle which includes consumption of stored meat and hot beverages.
"To keep their body warm, especially during the harsh winter, the people consume meat which has usually been stored for long periods. Their dishes are even spicy. Also, consumption of too many hot beverages, smoking and drinking further escalate the causes of GI cancer," Dr Sharma added.
"Liver cancer from Hepatitis B is also a concern in this belt. There have been few cases which have come up and we are doing further research on the reasons behind it," he added.
GI cancer, according to the doctor, is found to be more common in men aged above 40. Women who have undergone menopause have also been found to be prone, along with cervical and breast cancer.
"People are not aware of the early symptoms. There is a major lack of awareness in the region. Ninety per cent of the cases that came to me were in advanced stages. There is not much access to cancer treatment and even the proper drugs are not available," Dr Sharma noted.
According to the oncologist, there are chances of the GI cancer rate going up in the coming years, but periodical endoscopy and early chemotherapy might help control the rise.
Dr Kaushal K. Verma, a Dermatologist at AIIMS, stated that workers exposed to too much sunlight are also at higher risk of contracting skin cancer.
"The ultraviolet rays are too strong here. even if the locals are properly covered or use umbrellas, it won't work much here," he commented.
Dr Verma noted that the early symptoms of skin cancer are small patches which are mostly ignored.
"People don't take these marks seriously because they are usually small in size. Also, it often becomes difficult for an individual to distinguish between normal skin disease and the cancer mark," he added.
Not just exposure to the environment, Dr Verma cited food habits, vitamin deficiency and even pollution in the belt as reasons for the rise in skin cancer cases.
"If skin cancer is not treated at an early stage, it can be life-threatening. Women in the belt are more into outdoor activities than men, so they face the danger of getting diagnosed with skin cancer, especially after the age of 40," he said.
Apart from skin cancer, Dr Verma said locals are also at high risk in terms of several other skin problems like eczema and facial pigmentation, which are often difficult to treat as well.
"Most of the year it is extremely cold and dry. And when it is sunny, the rays are very strong -- enough to damage the skin. This escalates skin problems," he noted.
(Somrita Ghosh was in Leh on an invitation from Ashoka Mission and AIIMS. She can be contacted at email@example.com