Frequently Asked Questions about Cancer Screening

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General Cancer Screening FAQs

Will getting screened for cancer increase my odds of survival if I do have cancer?

Early detection is key. You have the best chance of being cured if cancer is discovered before it has time to spread to surrounding tissues and organs. For example, women diagnosed with early breast cancer have a 93-100% survival rate at five years, but those with later stage disease at the time of diagnosis have only a 72-22% chance of being alive at 5 years. Death rates for breast cancer have steadily declined since 1989, in part because of early detection through screening. Lung cancers are also being found earlier in some patients undergoing new types of screening, and this is benefiting their survival.

Breast Cancer FAQs

Does the radiation in mammograms cause breast cancer?

The radiation in one mammogram treatment is about the same as what you would be exposed to flying in an airplane across the country. It is a small amount, and the benefit of early detection outweighs the risk for most women. One reason not to do mammograms in young women is to spare them the exposure; plus mammogram x-rays do not penetrate the dense breast tissue associated with younger age.

Why do younger women have dense breasts?

Younger women have more breast tissue, which is needed to produce milk for an infant. As women age, their breasts usually change and the breast tissue is replaced by fat. Fat is easy to see through on a mammogram so lumps and calcifications can be seen.

What is the significance of calcifications in the breast? Does that mean there is cancer?

Calcifications can often be seen in the breast. Usually they are benign, meaning they are of no significance. But, sometimes the calcifications may represent the cells inside a cancerous mass that have died off and left just the calcifications behind. Radiologists look at the pattern of the calcifications to see if they are benign looking or malignant looking. Malignant looking calcifications require a biopsy to check for early cancers. Yearly mammograms with comparison of the images from year to year gives us the best chance of finding cancer early, even before it can be felt as a lump.

Prostate Cancer FAQs

What is the prostate gland?

The prostate gland is a walnut-sized gland that is located deep in the male pelvis. It has a bit of a doughnut shape, and the male urethra or urinary tube runs through the doughnut hole. The gland secretes fluid into the urethra during ejaculation to help nourish and propel sperm as it exits the body.

What is prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is an overgrowth of abnormal prostate cells as a result of internal changes in the cell nucleus. The genes inside the prostate cell nucleus, just like any other cell, signal the cell to divide and grow a new prostate cell when an old cell needs replaced. In cancer, the cell undergoes internal DNA changes that cause it to keep dividing without stopping. Instead of just making one new cell, many, many new cells are made. These are abnormal cells and may escape out of the prostate gland and invade the surrounding tissues, traveling through the blood vessels and lymphatic drainage system to other organs in the body where they can take root.

How does prostate cancer develop?

Prostate cancer develops when something damages the genes inside the prostate cell nucleus so that the genes continue to signal cell growth without the normal stops. Genes are exposed to damage by things like normal radiation that are present in the atmosphere and earth, and other “insults” like chemicals. Genes are not damaged from trauma. Genetic changes happen often in the body, but our normal cells can usually repair the damage. Sometimes cancers run in families when repair genes are damaged, and these damages are passed on to offspring.

Who is most likely to get prostate cancer?

All males are at risk for prostate cancer, especially those who have prostate cancer and other cancers in their families. African-American men are at a higher risk than all other men. Age is also a risk factor; the older one gets, the more chance of getting prostate cancer. A diet high in saturated fats from red meats and dairy products, and low in fruits and vegetables, has also been linked to prostate cancer risk.

What is the incidence of prostate cancer?

Prostate cancer is the most frequent cancer diagnosed in men, aside from skin cancer. It is the second most frequent killer of men who die by cancer; lung cancer is the most frequent cancer killer in men. It is estimated there will be 238,590 new cases of prostate cancer diagnosed in men in the United States this year – and 28,720 men in the U.S. will die of prostate cancer this year.

Does prostate cancer run in families?

It does tend to run in some families but, most of the time, there is no family history of prostate cancer.

Are there ways to avoid it?

Some risk factors can be avoided such as chemical exposure and diet, but there is nothing that can be done about aging and being a man. Those are risk factors that just cannot be changed.

What symptoms should I be looking for?

Often there are no symptoms in early prostate cancer. However, when the prostate cancer cells overgrow as a mass, they squeeze the urinary tube because of its position and, if big enough, can cause difficulty with urinary flow (see below). There can also be difficulty with ejaculation. There may be pain and pressure in the pelvis.

The more developed prostate cancers cause symptoms including:

  • Delayed or slowed start of urinary stream.
  • Dribbling or leakage of urine, most often after urinating.
  • Slow urinary stream.
  • Straining when urinating or not being able to empty out all of the urine.
  • Blood in the urine.
  • Bone pain or tenderness, most often in the lower back and pelvic bones (only when the cancer has spread).

What if I have some of those symptoms? Whom should I call if I have symptoms?

Call your primary care physician if you have any of these problems.These symptoms can be a sign of other conditions, so it is important to be evaluated. Your primary care physician may refer you to a urologist. Urologists are surgeons who are specially trained in the workings of the urinary system and the reproductive system in men.

How is prostate cancer diagnosed?

If the urologist suspects you may have prostate cancer, he or she will arrange a biopsy of the gland. In a biopsy, a piece of tissue is taken and looked at under the microscope. Looking at the prostate cells under the microscope is the only way to make the diagnosis.

Are there any screening tests for prostate cancer?

The digital rectal exam and the prostate specific antigen (PSA) have been the mainstay of screening for many years; however, there is some controversy about screening. Some practitioners feel many prostate cancers are so slow growing that treating them aggressively can cause more problems in quality of life issues than the actual cancer will, so they feel that routine screening should not be done. Others feel that since we often don’t know which prostate cancers are the slow-growing ones, we should continue to screen for all prostate cancers and treat them.

The American Cancer Society recommends screening for prostate cancer. Men who are 50 and have no risk factors should discuss their individual needs for screening with their physicians. Men with risk factors should talk to their physicians at age 45 or 40 depending on risk, so that screening can be incorporated into their health plan.

Lung Cancer FAQs

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

Most cases of lung cancer don’t cause any symptoms until they’ve spread too far to be cured, but symptoms do occur in some people with early lung cancer. The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that doesn't go away or gets worse
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit or phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don't go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by conditions other than lung cancer. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away.

How many people get lung cancer?

An estimated 226,160 new cases of lung cancer were diagnosed in 2012. An estimated 160,340 people died from lung cancer last year, making it the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

What are the risk factors for lung cancer?

Smoking is by far the largest risk factor for lung cancer. It is estimated that 80% of lung cancer deaths are the result of smoking. The more you smoke, and the longer you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer. Second hand smoke is also associated with lung cancer. Other risk factors include exposure to radon, asbestos, and diesel exhaust fumes.

Do nonsmokers get lung cancer?

Even though it's less common, some people who don't smoke get lung cancer. Every year, 16,000-24,000 Americans die of lung cancer even though they never smoked.

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