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April 19, 2011 > Cancer Control Month Focuses on the Importance of Early Detection, Prevention

Cancer Control Month Focuses on the Importance of Early Detection, Prevention

Did you know that cancer is not a single disease, but rather a group of more than 100 diseases? One thing all these conditions have in common is they occur when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Each year, about half a million Americans lose their battle with cancer, while millions of others continue to live with a diagnosis of cancer they've received sometime during their life.

Following a tradition begun in 1938, President Barack Obama has proclaimed April to be Cancer Control Month "to renew our commitment to increasing awareness about cancer and reducing the burden of this devastating illness."

"The number of new cases of cancer continues to increase each year," says oncologist Vandana Sharma, M.D., medical director of the Cancer Genetics Program at Washington Hospital. "One of the most important ways we can control cancer is to learn about and follow expert recommendations on prevention and early detection. This is something we should do for a lifetime, not just during Cancer Control Month."

Early detection, increased survival

If certain cancers are detected at an early stage before they spread to other parts of the body, it is more likely they can be cured, Dr. Sharma explains. Screening, or looking for cancer even before it causes symptoms, is used to check for some forms of the disease, including breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, and colorectal cancer in both men and women.

In order for screening to be an appropriate strategy for early detection, two elements are necessary, according to Dr. Sharma. First, the cancer must be fairly common in the overall population. Screening is not done for cancers that occur rarely. Secondly, there must be a test that has been proven to detect the disease effectively.

"For example, we perform screening for colorectal cancer because the disease is common and there is a good test for it," says Dr. Sharma. "However, we don't screen the general population of women for ovarian cancer because it is less common and there is no good test."

In addition to finding cancer before symptoms occur, a colonoscopy screening for colorectal cancer does more than detect the disease at an early stage. It can actually prevent the cancer from occurring when the physician performing the test finds and removes polyps that are at high risk for becoming cancerous.

Practice prevention

Besides having recommended screenings at the appropriate time and frequency, you can also follow a number of practices that have been proven to prevent or lower your chances of getting cancer. Many of these involve lifestyle changes. One of the most important is to avoid smoking.

"Smoking has been proven to contribute to cancer of the lungs, esophagus and bladder," states Dr. Sharma. "Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer for both men and women in the U.S. Recent data shows smoking may also play a part in causing breast cancer."

Another way to help prevent cancer is to maintain a healthy body weight by controlling your diet and exercising regularly. You may also need to limit your intake of alcohol. For example, women who are at high risk for breast cancer should drink no more than three glasses of wine or other alcoholic beverages per week.

To help avoid skin cancer, the most common form of cancer, limit your exposure to the sun and tanning beds. "This is especially critical for young women," reports Dr. Sharma. "Recent studies have identified a link between the use of tanning beds by teenage girls and increased rates of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer."

New data also suggests that taking an aspirin regularly may help to prevent cancer.

A vaccine against HPV, or human papilloma virus, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help prevent cervical cancer in women and anal cancer in both men and women. HPV has been shown to cause the majority of cancers of the cervix and anus.

For specific details about any of the preventive measure outlined above, you should talk to your doctor about your own personal risk for cancer and what you can do to help prevent the disease.

Know your family history

Another important aspect of cancer prevention is knowing your family's health history. "The majority of cancers are random, but for 10 percent to 20 percent of people with cancer, it runs in their family," explains Dr. Sharma. "It's important to talk with your family about their medical history, and this includes siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents for three generations. Knowing your family history will help your doctor determine the best way to screen you for cancer."

If you have a family history of cancer for which there is a screening test, doctors usually recommend that you start having the test at an age 10 years younger than when your relative was diagnosed. For example, it is normally recommended that women begin having mammograms to detect breast cancer when they are 40. However, if a woman's mother had breast cancer at age 45, the daughter should start having regular mammograms at age 35.

Learn More About Washington Hospital's Cancer Services

To learn more about the Washington Cancer Genetics Program, visit or call (510) 608-1356 for more information. For more information about the services and programs that are provided through the Community Cancer Program at Washington Hospital visit or call (510) 745-6433.

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