Noncommunicable Diseases: Early Detection & Prevention

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years and has a focus on special education and urban education. She received her Master's degree in teaching from Simmon's College and her Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology.

In this lesson, we'll explain what noncommunicable diseases are. We'll be looking at two main examples, cancer and diabetes. For each disease we'll explain early detection processes and prevention strategies.

What Are Noncommunicable Diseases?

Picture a friend who has the flu. They're sneezing and coughing and you probably don't want to go anywhere near them. Now, picture a friend with high blood pressure. Are you more worried about catching the flu, or high blood pressure? Hopefully, you're thinking the flu!

Like your instincts tell you, high blood pressure is a noncommunicable disease, meaning you can't catch it from another person. Noncommunicable diseases usually are caused by lifestyle, such as lack of exercise or a poor diet, or from genetic factors. Today we'll look at two examples, cancer, and diabetes.


In cancer, a war rages on inside your body undetected. Cells inside your body fight for their life as cancerous cells take over their resources. Unless you go for regular cancer screenings, this might be happening right now. Cancer is uncontrolled cell growth. When cells in your body are exposed to carcinogens, or chemicals that cause cancer, their DNA changes, or mutates. The mutated DNA causes your cells to divide out of control, refuse to do their jobs, and crowd out healthy cells, causing organ failure.

Cancer cells progress and divide more and more out of control
cancer progression

Cancer Screenings

Although there are many aspects of cancer that scientists don't understand yet, there are basic strategies that can drastically decrease your risk of cancer. First, is early detection. Some mutations that cause cancer are entirely inherited, and scientists can detect them in a genetic test, where they look at your genes.

For example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes cause breast cancer. Women with a history of breast cancer in their family can opt to get genetic testing to see if they have the mutation. If they do, before the cancer even starts, they can elect to have a mastectomy, or a surgery where the breast tissue is removed to eliminate the risk of getting breast cancer all together. Even if you don't have the BRCA mutation, regular breast cancer screenings by your doctor and self breast exams are important for early detection.

A total mastectomy where both breast tissue and the lymph nodes in the breast are removed

Cervical cancer can be detected through routine pap smears, a procedure where a doctor scrapes cells from the cervix separating the vagina from the uterus. The cells are looked at under a microscope for abnormalities that might indicate cancer.

Colon cancer screenings, or colonoscopy, usually start at age 50, unless people have a history of colon cancer in their family. In this unpleasant procedure, patients consume a medication that causes diarrhea to remove any waste from the colon the night before the procedure. The next day, the doctors insert a tube with a camera through the anus into the colon to look for cancerous growths called polyps.

Luckily, this method of early detection is only required once every ten years. If you have to start at age 50, then you most likely only have to go through about five in your lifetime if you never get colon cancer.

Colonoscopy procedure

Prevention Methods

Besides early detection, there are strategies to prevent cancer as well. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and tanning beds is known to cause skin cancer. Taking extra precautions like wearing long sleeves and pants, and using sunscreen when spending time outdoors can decrease your risk. Smoking is also well known to cause lung cancer. Not smoking and avoiding second hand smoke can drastically reduce your risk.


Diabetes is a disease where the hormone insulin is not made, or not detected by the body. Insulin is needed to control blood sugar levels. Without it, blood sugar gets too high and can damage organs like the kidneys, eyes and even result in amputation of limbs.

  • Type 1 diabetics have a genetic disorder where their pancreas does not produce insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetics develop a tolerance to insulin, meaning the body makes insulin, but their cells no longer respond to it. The causes of type 2 diabetes aren't entirely understood, but genetics, the environment, diet and lack of exercise are thought to play a role.

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