Cancer Care | Family Health
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3 Ways You Can Help Detect Cancer Early

Early detection truly saves lives

Here’s a sad, frustrating truth: We could save countless lives from cancer if we simply found the disease earlier.

Take colon cancer, for example. Polyps take as long as 10 years to turn into cancer. Finding them early can literally prevent the disease from developing.

For example, one recent study noted that colonoscopies could prevent colon cancer in about 40 percent of cases. Yet up to 70 percent of people age 50 and older do not have colonoscopies. The numbers do not add up.

The same is true for other forms of the disease, too. When it comes to cancer, early detection is the absolute best form of prevention. As a patient, you can take steps to help.

1. Get screened

For example, we recommend colonoscopies for both men and women starting at age 50. In some cases, such as when you have genetic risk factors (see below), you should start even earlier.

To prevent prostate cancer, a panel of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends baseline PSA screening for healthy men ages 50 to 70 every one to two years, based on the results of clinical trials. Most panelists actually recommend baseline testing for men ages 45 to 49, too. Have a conversation about the pros and cons of prostate screening with your doctor. For African-Americans or those with a family history of prostate cancer, ask if screening should begin even earlier.

Plenty of risk factors, including your genes, are beyond your control. That is all the more reason to eliminate the risk factors that you alone control.

For women, we recommend yearly mammograms after age 40 to help prevent breast cancer. In addition, schedule a Pap smear every three years from age 21 to age 65; it’s a highly effective way to screen for cervical cancer.

Start the process by having a yearly check-up with your doctor. Ask about what screenings matter most for you. What screenings you have — and when — will depend not only on your age and gender, but also on other risk factors such as family history.

If you’re worried about coverage, take heart. The Affordable Care Act improves access and coverage for many of these preventive screenings. For example, the ACA now requires commercial health insurance plans to cover mammograms for women starting at age 40.

2. Know your family history — and act accordingly

Cleveland Clinic and other sources offer tools to help you gather your family health history.

Family history is much more than a trip down memory lane. Your genes play a major role in many types of cancer. If cancer runs in your family, genetic counseling and, often, earlier screening can make a major difference in detection and prevention.

For example, the genetic condition Lynch Syndrome raises the lifetime risk of colon cancer to 85 percent for men and 40 percent for women. If this condition runs in your family, you need to start colonoscopies at age 25.

Breast cancer offers another example. If you have a mutation in genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, your doctor will want to monitor you more closely and discuss possible options such as preventive mastectomy.

3. Control what you can

Plenty of risk factors, including your genes, are beyond your control. That is all the more reason to eliminate the risk factors that you alone control.

Lifestyle changes and choices make a proven difference in preventing cancer. For example:

  • Lower your risk of lung, bladder and other cancers by stopping smoking.
  • Avoid skin cancer by opting out of tanning beds or excessive sun-bathing.
  • Minimize your risk of liver cancer by drinking only in moderation.
  • Reduce the likelihood of breast cancer — and other cancers, for that matter — by engaging in regular exercise and a smarter diet to keep your weight in a healthy range.

 Prevention and early detection depend largely on you, the patient. Control what you can — and start a lifelong habit of regular check-ups and screenings when you need them.

Tags: cancer prevention, colonoscopy, early detection, mammogram, prevention, PSA

Brian J. Bolwell, MD, is an international leader in bone marrow transplantation and managing cancers that affect the blood. Dr. Bolwell is Chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute.

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  • Ann

    Ok article, but limited. I understanded that mammograms are helpful, but there is some debate on how often they should be given. There are other detection methods using heat (seeking detection) that won’t expose women to radiation and I wonder if these could be used every other year; reducing radiation exposure by 50%! Bottom line: frequent mammograms might contribute to breast cancer! Since this technology is out there, I wish it could be made more readily available.

    Diet? What about it? Just for starters…how about greatly reducing or eliminating sugar intake! Eating lots and lots of vegetables, more fruit, small to moderate dairy and meat….checking for gluten sensitivity…and food sensitivities in general. Avoiding all junk food!!!!!! Eliminating soda and greatly reducing or eliminating artificial sweeteners! Drinking lots of fresh water! And eating organic as much as possible.

  • a fan

    Sorry – can’t help this post – found the typical mis-spelling look in the article – 1. Get Screened: 2nd paragraph, 4th line: it is not prostRate. I expect better from the Cleveland Clinic!

    • Health Hub Team

      Thank you, this has been corrected.
      HealthHub Team