Learn about the importance of cancer screenings
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Q&A: What Is the Importance of Cancer Screenings?

Why should you get a cancer screening? Can screenings play an important part in your health care, or is it just a roll of the genetic and environmental dice?

Although physicians and researchers have not yet identified the causes and risk factors for every kind of cancer, certain types of cancer have increased risk, making screenings very important, says David Seastone, MD, PhD. Types of screenings include self-exams, doctor exams, blood tests, imaging tests, and genetic screenings.

Dr. Seastone, a medical oncologist with the Regional Cancer Center who also sees patients at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Hamot, sat down for a Q&A about the importance of cancer screenings.

Q: As a medical oncologist, what are some of the questions that your patients ask?

A: I often get questions about a patient’s specific cancer diagnosis and how to go about finding information on the internet. They want to know what they should use to help guide them to the right information.

Q: What are some credible websites you recommend for cancer information?

A: The National Cancer Institute is a valuable site for cancer information. We always tell people with a specific type of cancer to look for information from the related foundation, such as the National Leukemia Foundation.

People are going to talk to friends and family as well, but I always tell them to bear in mind that not every cancer is created equal. Just because somebody they know has a similar type of cancer, it doesn’t mean it will be managed or treated in the same way.

Q: Does changing your diet decrease your risk of getting cancer?

A: We know that people who have high-cholesterol diets or diets that are low in fiber tend to get colon cancer at an increased rate. Alternatively, people who eat a generally healthy, well-balanced diet get colon cancer at a decreased rate.

There is a theory that diets high in carbohydrates might promote cancer cell growth. Although it might seem that starving cancer cells of glucose or sugar could prevent the cancer from growing, it does not. And in some ways, people on those types of diets do not do well because they are starving their bodies of important nutrients.

Q: At what age should you start getting routine mammograms?

A: For breast cancer screening, the American Society of Clinical Oncology guidelines say women should get mammograms starting at age 40, unless they have a strong family history. Then, we sometimes recommend starting routine mammograms at an earlier age.

Q: Does getting screened significantly lower your risk of dying from cancer?

A: Unequivocally yes. Screenings allow us to see anomalies in the body that we can then test for cancer. They also help detect early stage cancers, when they are easier to treat.

Q: What are some of the signs and symptoms of melanoma? Are there things to look out for such as certain coloring, itchiness, etc.?

A: We always talk about the ABCDs of melanoma:

  • Asymmetries: Did the mole or skin lesion appear rapidly or is it asymmetric?
  • Borders: Are the borders irregular?
  • Color: Is it very dark or hyper-pigmented?
  • Diameter: Is it bigger around than a pencil eraser?

If something has been changing rapidly or over time, or if it just doesn’t look and feel right, bring it to your doctor’s attention.

Q: What exercise recommendations can you follow for cancer prevention, and does being overweight increase the risk of cancer?

A: Being severely obese certainly increases the risk of cancer. Even being moderately overweight can increase your cancer risk. I recommend a brisk 30-minute walk every day. or an hour every couple of days to help prevent cancer. Exercise plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight and helping to prevent a number of diseases beyond cancer.

UPMC offers a wide range of cancer screenings, including tests for colon, lung, and prostate cancers as well as mammograms and genetic counseling for breast cancer. For more information about cancer care and screenings in your area, visit UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to search physicians and locations.