Preventative steps to fight cancer: How routine screenings can detect cancer early, result in better outcomes
By Meghann Finn Sepulveda
Educating your patients on cancer screening recommendations is considered one of the best ways to help them stay in control of their health. Screenings for each type of cancer can vary, but if your patients follow these recommendations for detecting breast, cervical and skin cancer, they’ll be armed with a powerful defense: knowledge.
Mammograms every year
Starting at age 40, women should have an annual mammogram, or sooner, if family history of breast cancer is present in a first degree relative such as a mother or sister. Specifically, women who are considered at high risk should consider screening 10 years earlier than the age of the relative at the time of diagnosis, but not before age 25.
If family history is present, it may be beneficial to speak to a genetic counselor to determine risk, and discuss testing for high risk gene mutations such as BRCA1 or BRCA2.
“When a woman is at significantly high risk for breast cancer, we typically suggest annual mammograms in combination with a breast MRI to complement our detection methods,” said Vilert Loving, M.D., director of Breast Imaging at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.
Breast imaging specialists say that while regular screenings are the most effective strategy to identify early breast cancer in high risk women, there are other options available.
“Additional screenings and preventative medications are available and should be discussed with a physician or breast health specialist,” Loving said. “Surgical options such as preventative mastectomies can reduce the chance of breast cancer by 90 percent.”
Pap test and HPV vaccination
It may be surprising to learn that you can begin protecting your children from cervical cancer at age nine. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children, teenagers and adults between the ages of 9-26 should receive the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to prevent exposure to common viruses associated with cervical cancer.
After age 26, experts say the vaccine is not recommended because the majority of people have already been exposed to the virus and it would not be beneficial.
The good news is that the progression to cervical cancer from normal cervical cells is slow.
“It takes about 10 years for a patient to develop cervical cancer after infection with HPV, which allows for pre-cancerous lesions to be discovered and treated early,” said Matthew Schlumbrecht, M.D., gynecologic oncologist and surgeon at Banner MD Anderson.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say women ages 21-30 should have a pap test, which checks for changes in the cells found in the cervix, once every three years. Beginning at age 30, women should get a pap test and a HPV test. If both tests are normal, this should be repeated every five years until age 65. An annual pelvic exam during a well-woman visit is still recommended.
Protect your skin
Of all cancer types, skin cancer is predominant. More than 3.5 million people are diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. The majority of skin cancer is caused by excessive ultraviolet ray exposure from the sun.
“People should apply sunscreen with SPF 15 or 30 every day, even if they are not planning on being outdoors” said Randall Craft, M.D., plastic and reconstruction surgeon at Banner MD Anderson.
Melanoma can be found on the face, neck and arms, which are the most common sun exposed areas of the body. Other typical locations are the back and chest in men, and legs in women.
A biopsy of the lesion can determine the method of treatment.
“The most important thing people can do is to get a periodic skin exam from a physician to identify changes in the skin,” Craft said. “While research shows there isn’t a high correlation between family history and melanoma, there is a greater incidence of skin cancer in people who burn easily or have a history of blistering sunburns, have blue eyes, red hair, or freckling.”
Benign skin tumors like moles are common and often harmless, but are sometimes removed to be safe.