By Nina Radcliff, MD
Our body is truly amazing. It is comprised of an estimated three trillion cells that form tissues and organs and work harmoniously together. A cell is our body’s basic unit of life. And, each cell is the CEO of its own factory with a particular job function — pumping blood, memory, clearing toxins, synthesizing hormones or proteins, and the list goes on. Each cell is also able to grow and produce more cells when needed; for example, when they become old, damaged, or die. Again, truly amazing.
That is why a recent study on the lifetime risk of developing cancer sent shock waves and struck a chord amongst many; it unveiled a weakness in this amazing system we call our body. It is estimated that one in every two people will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. The statistic is downright staggering and a call to action.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means and what can be done to decrease those odds. And, as you read, remember: today there is good news with research, prevention and treatment along with more breakthroughs to stop cancer in its tracks.
The term describes when the orderly process of cell growth and division goes awry, or out of control. This happens when a cell’s DNA (genetic material) mutates. The cell does not die when it should and/or new cells form when the body does not need them. The extra
cells form a mass of tissue that we call a tumor.
Benign tumors do not spread to other parts of the body, meaning they are not “cancerous.” Examples include fibroids in the uterus or lipomas (fatty tissue growth often found in the neck, back, shoulder, or arm). On the other hand, malignant tumors are considered “cancerous” because they can invade nearby tissue or spread via blood or the lymphatic system to other organs (known as metastasis). As a result, they can interfere with that organ’s function.
What are some symptoms? One of the most frustrating issues with diagnosing cancer is that the tumor often has to become large enough to cause a problem, or symptom.
This conundrum leads to delays in diagnosis and can limit treatment options. As a result, early detection is key.
There are a number of “vague” symptoms that we should be on the lookout for: fatigue, unexplained weight loss, fever, pain, change in appetite, nausea and/or vomiting. The reason we call them vague is because many of these symptoms share characteristics of other, non-cancerous conditions. So, “when in doubt, check it out!”
Experts have also identified “cancer alarm symptoms”: persistent cough or hoarseness; an unexplained lump; persistent change in bowel habits (or blood in the stool); persistent change in bladder habits (or blood in the urine); unexplained bleeding; a sore that doesn’t heal; difficulty swallowing; and a change in the appearance of a mole.
Remember: the sooner the diagnosis, the better the prognosis!
What is cancer staging?
Doctors and scientists use a system called staging to describe the size, extent or severity of a person’s cancer. Knowing the stage of disease allows for treatment planning, establishing a prognosis, and exchanging information amongst healthcare professionals. Staging is based upon findings from physical exams, imaging procedures, laboratory tests, and pathology and surgical reports.
What are my treatment options? The primary goal of any cancer treatment is to control the growth of the cancer and relieve its symptoms. This may involve chemotherapy
(medications); surgery; radiation; transplants (e.g. bone marrow for blood cancers); immunotherapy (restoring or enhancing the immune system’s natural ability to fight cancer); cryosurgery (extreme cold to freeze a tumor) or more.
The commitment of our researchers and doctors, as well as the individuals and organizations that raise money for cancer research, has led to amazing advancements. Consequently, this has doubled cancer survival from many years ago. However, a single death is one death too many and there is still more work to do.
What can I do to limit my risk of cancer?
Although we cannot control or change all risk factors when it comes to cancer — genetics, random cell mutations — there are a number we can control. Studies have clearly demonstrated that not smoking, limiting heavy alcohol consumption, eating healthy, maintaining an active lifestyle and healthy weight, and protecting our skin from ultraviolet light, are surefire ways to decrease our risk. Prevention is the best form of medicine, so let’s do our part.
What are some cancer screening tests that I should know about?
Research has shown that undergoing certain screening tests regularly has proven results when it comes to decreasing deaths from cancer.
Examples include: mammograms to detect breast cancer; colonoscopies to detect colon and rectal cancer; Pap smears to detect cervical cancer; prostate exams and possibly PSA levels to detect prostate cancer; skin exams; and X-rays or a CT scan of the lungs for heavy smokers to detect lung cancer. Please discuss with your healthcare provider your risk factors and appropriate timing and frequency of these tests.
The medical community and public are committed to making cancer a word, not a sentence.
By knowing the facts, risk factors, symptoms, and undergoing appropriate screening tests, we can do our part to marginalize and, hopefully, one day eliminate cancer.
By Nina Radcliff, MD