Cancer screenings: Don’t be afraid

Most people understand that they should see their doctor at least once a year for a regular checkup.  But many people are reluctant to go beyond that and get the recommended screening for cancer, despite the fact that cancer screening saves lives.  We need to change that and get more people into doctors’ offices for appropriate screening.

The reluctance is understandable.  Nobody likes getting a colonoscopy or mammogram.  The preparation for colonoscopy can be challenging.  But many people are afraid of getting the results and actually facing a diagnosis of cancer.   So they put it off – in many cases, until it is too late.  Truly, having a colonoscopy is a lot easier than having cancer.

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In the United States, there will be an estimated 1,655,540 new diagnosed cases of cancer in 2014, with an estimated 585,720 deaths.  There’s no doubt that many of those deaths could have been avoided if the cancers that caused them had been detected and treated at an earlier point.

The fact is that, because of major research advances, many cancers can be defeated if they are detected at an early stage and treated appropriately.  For example, if colon cancer is detected at its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is 74 percent.  If the cancer is not detected until it has spread to other organs, however – which is often the case – the five-year survival rate is only six percent. Simply put, screening can make a difference between life and death.

Screening in many cases can not only detect cancer, it can prevent it from occurring in the first place.  In a colonoscopy, for example, the doctor can find pre-cancerous polyps growing in the colon and snip them off, thus preventing them from turning into cancerous growths.

If you have an average level of risk for colorectal cancer, you should start getting screened with a colonoscopy at age 50.  Other tests are also available.

If breast cancer is found in its early stages, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent.  Once it begins to grow and spread, however, the survival rate drops – so, like in colon cancer, early detection is also the key.

Women should perform regular self-examinations and, beginning at the age of 40, have a mammogram every year.  Women at an increased risk of having breast cancer may need to start earlier or have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exam.

Many other common cancers can be detected at early stages through simple and routine testing.  These include cervical, oral, prostate, and skin cancers.  More complex testing can detect lung cancer.  Your doctor can advise you on the appropriate screening.  Talk to your doctor and be honest about your risk factors.

People can also take simple, common-sense precautions that will help avoid certain types of cancer.  For example, smoking tobacco is the biggest cause of lung cancer.  If you smoke now, you really ought to quit.  If you don’t smoke, don’t even think about starting.  Stay away from chewing tobacco and snuff too as they increase the risk of oral cancer.

You can protect yourself from skin cancer by using sunblock, wearing a hat, and limiting sun exposure.   It’s also good advice to stay physically active, watch your weight, and eat a healthy diet  -- all these can help reduce your risk of developing a variety of cancers.

Finally, it’s support for medical research that is offering hope to every person affected by cancer and identifying new opportunities to prevent and detect the disease at its earliest stages. You can go online to the American Association for Cancer Research to learn more about what is being done and how you can help.

McKinley is a critical care nurse with more than 30 years experience.  She is a partner at the firm Critical Connections, a clinical educator at Ohio Valley Medical Center, past president of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses and is a published author on nursing, critical care and health policy. Arteaga is president of the American Association for Cancer Research, professor of medicine and cancer biology, and associate director for clinical research at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.