Cancer screening and prevention is always critical, but during COVID-19 we are all concerned about our health especially the acute changes, and we all want to protect ourselves. With the emphasis on social distancing it is hard to think about any health concerns except how can I keep myself and my family safe to prevent us from getting this terrible virus. Unfortunately, that keeps us from taking care of other health issues that may be developing, and things like cancer screening are getting put on the back burner. But whether it’s COVID-19 or something else that’s causing you to put off cancer screening, we highly recommend you don’t.
If you notice a concerning symptom PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE IT, no matter your age. We are seeing colorectal cancers in young patients that a decade or two ago was unheard of. Hospitals and your healthcare providers are taking the necessary precautions to keep you safe from getting the virus if you follow the simple rules of wearing a mask, social distancing, wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds, and don’t touch your face.
Symptoms & Signs: What Indicates You Need Cancer Screening?
Let’s talk about a few symptoms that can signify cancer that should not be ignored. Make sure to contact your doctor if you:
- Have unusual weight loss
- Cough up blood
- See blood in your urine or stools
- See dark tarry stools or changes in your bowel habits
- Have abnormal vaginal spotting or bleeding if you have gone through menopause if you are a woman
- Notice a new lump that you did not have before in your breasts or lymph nodes or anywhere on your body
- Notice a new dark mole on your skin that you did not have before, or a change in a mole you have had
If you notice any of these signs, please contact your doctor. The fear of getting the Coronavirus may cause you to delay reporting these symptoms, but please do not.
Cancer Prevention: How to Reduce Your Risk
Data tells us that there are some simple things you can do to decrease your likelihood of developing cancer. Nothing is 100%, but anything you can do to decrease your risk of getting cancer is an important step you can take.
First, if you smoke, STOP SMOKING. The best thing is to never smoke. Every cigarette causes some harm to your lungs, heart, and blood vessels which in turn affects every part of your body. Smoking increases heart disease, breathing problems, and cancer at many sites in your body, not just the lungs.
Second, eat a well-balanced diet and limit calories to the recommended daily amount, which will help you maintain a healthy weight. We now know that obesity is a leading cause of death due to multiple diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, and it has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers such as pancreas, breast, colorectal, and uterine. A healthy diet of unprocessed whole foods, fruits and vegetables, along with regular exercise of some kind, as simple as a daily walk, can help you maintain a healthy weight and decrease your risk of getting cancer.
Lastly, limit sun exposure by using a sunscreen or wearing protective clothing.
Vaccines that Help Protect Against Cancer
There are new vaccines against certain viruses that are known to cause cancer. Hepatitis B is linked to liver cancer and there is a vaccine to prevent Hep B infection. There is no cure for hepatitis B.
Hepatitis C is also linked to liver cancer. There is no vaccine for it, but there are drugs that can cure hepatitis C.
Other viruses such as the human papilloma virus, HPV, and Epstein Barr virus have been linked to development of cancers. HPV has been linked to cancers of the throat, cervix, anal canal, vagina, and vulva. You can screen with PAP smears for cervical cancer, but these other cancers have no good screening and present with symptoms that are often times ignored until the cancer is advanced. It is hoped that by vaccinating young people before they become sexually active the infection rate from HPV is decreased which hopefully decreases the rate of occurrence of the above mentioned cancers in the future.
Cancer Screening Guidelines
There are screening guidelines to help detect cancer in its earliest stages. Early detection of cancer greatly increases the chances for successful treatment. We know that early stage cancers are much easier to cure with less treatment than advanced cancers, thus decreasing cost of treatment and overall burden to the patient.
There are many screening guidelines, and no test is 100% at finding cancer, but certainly it is better than no screening. These tests coupled with patients notifying their healthcare providers about unusual symptoms (discussed above) aid in cancer detection. Below we will discuss standard screenings as well as newer technologies that are being used and developed to make screening more effective as well as easier for the patient.
The most widely recommended screenings have to do with detection of the some of the most common cancers- prostate, breast, colorectal, cervix, and lung. For many of these screening tests, advances in imaging technology and the use of artificial intelligence and analytics are improving the accuracy of medical imaging for early cancer diagnosis. AI may quantify information from images that is not detectable by humans and thereby complement clinical decision making. AI also can enable the aggregation of multiple data streams into powerful, integrated diagnostic systems spanning radiographic images, genomics, pathology, and electronic health records
Prostate Cancer Screening
For prostate cancers, a simple blood test and rectal exam can be performed. What is new for prostate cancer screening is developing models to predict who needs a biopsy and if the cancer discovered is significant enough to warrant treatment vs active surveillance. Additionally, if a biopsy is planned, studies have looked at the application of MRI of the prostate to direct biopsies of an abnormality seen on MRI in addition to random biopsies versus random biopsies alone.
Breast Cancer Screening
For breast cancer the most recommended screening is the mammogram. The mammogram is the simplest test but many women find it uncomfortable, although briefly so. Diagnostic improvements include advanced medical imaging technologies, including digital mammography and computer-aided detection (CAD) technologies that use artificial intelligence and deep learning to automatically recognize patterns in images that suggest a tumor or lesion. 3-D digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT) has dramatically improved the ability to spot smaller lesions for earlier cancer detection. There are other tests such as ultrasounds or MRI that may be recommended for some women based on breast density, family history of breast cancer, or known genetic mutations. These need to be discussed with your health care provider.
Cervix Cancer Screening
The incidence of cervix cancer has plummeted since the advent of the PAP smear, which is a simple test. That is now coupled with high risk HPV testing which is another indicator of the risk of developing cervix cancer.
Lung Cancer Screening
Low Dose screening lung CT scans are now recommended for lung cancer detection in patients who have a history of smoking or who are current smokers. This test can help detect lung cancer at its earliest stages, making it much more curable. Advances in imaging technology and the use of artificial intelligence and analytics are improving the accuracy of medical imaging for early lung cancer diagnosis Please discuss this with your healthcare provider to see if you are a candidate for this.
Colorectal Cancer Screening
Screening for colorectal cancer (CRC) has probably caused the most angst for patients as the more commonly recommended colonoscopy is an invasive procedure that patients do not like.
One new development in CRC screening is the younger age that screening should begin. As we are now seeing this disease develop in younger people the new guidelines recommend that screening begin at age 45, or earlier based on family history. There are many options including the more recent additions of a CT colonography or the Cologuard test which screen for cancer cell DNA in your stool. CT colonography still requires that your bowels be cleaned out which many patients do not like, and the Cologuard requires that you obtain some of your stool and mail it back in a provided container for testing. If the test is positive you will have to undergo a confirmatory colonoscopy. Discuss the options with your healthcare provider to see what is best for you.
Screening for Other Cancers
No test is 100% accurate so if you are having any unusual symptoms make sure your discuss these with your healthcare provider despite a negative screening test. For many cancers commonly seen such as ovarian, pancreas, endometrial, and bladder there are still no good screening tests, so patients have to be symptomatic oftentimes before discovered.
What’s New in Cancer Screening
Finally, what is new in the screening world? A most exciting development is tumor cell free DNA blood tests. These blood tests are now showing promise in detecting cancer before it becomes symptomatic. In early clinical trials they have shown high sensitivity and specificity for detecting cancers that have no good present screening tests. They have shown good results on a few thousand patients who are known to have cancer, and are now beginning trials for validation in patients with no known cancer. This would be a fantastic development as it would require only a simple blood test, and if abnormal would then be confirmed with standard methods. This will indeed make screening more desirable if it were as simple as a blood test.
Radiotherapy Cancer Treatment at SERO
It’s essential for everyone to be screened for cancer as soon as they notice the signs listed above. Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider will likely use one of the methods we discussed so they can detect any problems as early as possible. Many types of cancer are easier to treat in their early stages, making cancer screening vital to improving prognosis.
At Southeast Radiation Oncology Group, offer the latest techniques in radiation oncology for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and need treatment. If you’re looking for a consultation, please contact us online or call (704)-680-6570. We’re here to support you and help you find the right option for your situation.