February has been designated National Cancer Prevention Month – a good reminder to get screened for cancer as part of your routine physical exam. Did you know that one in two men, and one in three women, will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime? With these statistics, it is important to know your risks, early warning signs to be on the lookout for, and which tests you should consider for cancer screening.
Early Detection is Critical
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and his approach can very aptly be applied to cancer screening, early detection and prevention. From skin cancer to breast cancer, early detection can mean the difference between a minor blip on your health radar – such as the removal of a mole or cyst – and a major health scare that requires more extensive or invasive treatments.
While some forms of cancer cannot be prevented, outcomes can be significantly improved through early detection and timely treatment. If a patient is diagnosed with cancer in its earliest phase, or Stage 1, the potential for effective treatment and a positive outcome is greater. For example, if a woman is treated for Stage 1 breast cancer, she has a greater than 90 percent chance of survival for at least five years post-treatment. If, however, a woman is treated for breast cancer after it has reached Stage 4, she has a less than 30 percent chance of survival five years post-treatment.
Scans and Tests
You are the first line of defense against cancer, and can take an active role in educating and screening yourself.
What Women Can Do:
• Conduct regular breast self-exams
• Examine skin for new or irregular moles
• Schedule annual mammography tests and pelvic exams
• Consider getting an annual colonoscopy
• Ask your dentist to include evaluations for oral cancer during your routine exams
What Men Can Do:
• Schedule annual prostate-specific antigen tests and digital rectal exams
• Conduct regular self-exams of skin for new or changing moles
• Get an annual colonoscopy
• Ask your dentist to include evaluations for oral cancer during routine exams
If you spot one of the early warning signs of cancer, schedule a visit with your doctor. She may recommend that you get some additional tests of your blood, urine and other body fluids for preliminary screening. Based on those results, she may refer you for a scan to rule out or diagnose cancer. Before you get a scan, it is helpful to know the different types of scans available and how they work.
Here are some of the scans typically used to test for cancer:
CT Scan (Computed Tomography) – This scan uses an x-ray machine that is linked to a computer to take a series of pictures of your organs. You may receive a contrast material (a dye) to make the pictures easier to read.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – Detailed images of different areas of your body are made via the use of a strong magnet linked to a computer. The images can be viewed on a monitor or printed on film.
Ultrasound – This device emits sound waves that people cannot hear. The sound waves bounce off tissues inside your body like an echo, and a computer uses these echoes to create an image called a sonogram.
Bone Scan – A radioactive substance called a “tracer” is injected into a vein in your arm. Over a period of a few hours, the tracer travels through your bloodstream and into your bones. The scan uses a camera to take pictures of the tracer in your bones, showing areas that have little or no absorption of tracer. These areas are referred to as “dark” or “cold” spots, and can indicate certain types of cancer.
Mammogram – Women typically receive two types of mammograms during an annual visit, x-ray mammography (using film) and digital mammography (using a monitor), to help detect early signs of irregular lumps or tissue.
PET (Positron Emission Tomography/PET) – You are given an injection of a small amount of radioactive material that can then be traced as it travels through your body. The PET takes a series of images that capture when the material reacts with high chemical activity. Cancer cells can show up as “high activity” areas in these images.
Risk Factors for Cancer
It is important to know your risks for cancer and that many of the risk factors for cancer are avoidable. If you have one or more of the risk factors for cancer, it does not mean you will get it. Some people are more sensitive to the known risk factors than others, and many people who have risk factors never develop cancer. While experts cannot always predict why some people develop cancer and others do not, they emphasize that it is important to know the risk factors that increase your chances for developing cancer. Some of the most common risk factors for cancer are:
Your age – As you grow older, your risk of developing cancer grows higher. While children and young adults can get cancer, most cancers occur in people over the age of 65.
Your genes – A family history of cancer may mean you are more likely to develop it. However, multiple cases of cancer in a family can sometimes be a matter of pure chance.
Your diet – If you don’t get physical exercise, are overweight, and have a poor diet, you are more likely to develop cancer.
Alcohol – If you have more than one or two drinks per day for many years, you may be at increased risk for developing certain cancers.
Tobacco –More than 180,000 Americans die from cancer related to tobacco use every year. Whether you smoke it, snuff it or chew it, a tobacco habit can lead to cancer. Those who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are also at increased risk for cancer.
UV exposure – Ultraviolet radiation, whether it comes from the sun, tanning booths or sunlamps, causes skin damage that can lead to skin cancer.
Radiation exposure – Exposure to ionizing radiation that comes from radioactive fallout, radon gas, x-rays and other sources can cause cell damage that leads to cancer. People who have worked in or around nuclear power plants, atomic weapons testing, or mines or those who have receive high-dose radiation therapy may be at increased risk for cancer. (The risk of cancer from low-dose x-rays used in dental and medical offices is relatively low.)
Chemical exposure – If you work in the chemical industry or are a painter or construction worker, you may have been exposed to toxins such as asbestos, vinyl chloride, benzene, nickel or cadmium, which can increase your risk for cancer.
Viruses and bacteria – A history of certain illnesses may increase your risk for developing cancer. If you have had Hepatitis B or C, an Epstein-Barr infection or the Herpes 8 virus, you may be at increased risk for some types of cancer.
Hormones – Many women choose to undergo hormone therapy during menopause. Unfortunately, therapy that involves increases in estrogen or progestin may increase the risk of breast cancer and other medical conditions. A woman considering hormone therapy to manage the symptoms of menopause should discuss the potential risks with her doctor.
Early Warning Signs
Your best defense against cancer is being able to spot potential early warning signs. If you are vigilant and notice the signs early, you can discuss your concerns with your doctor, who can recommend further tests or scans to rule out a serious problem. Here are a few things to look for:
• Any pronounced or unusual bleeding or discharge
• A lump, hardness or thickening anywhere on your body
• A wound or soreness that does not heal within a reasonable time
• A chronic or persistent change in your bowel or bladder functions
• A chronic or persistent sore throat, cough or hoarseness
• Any changes in a wart or mole
• Difficulty swallowing or persistent indigestion
To find a provider offering cancer screening scans click here.