MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: Can you stop a cancer cell from growing before you gert sick?

Date: Tue Nov 14 23:04:42 2000
Posted By: Sarah Martin Mason, Medical student, Medicine, Tulane University School of Medicine
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 973185086.Me

Dear Shaneice,
Your question is a very controversial one.  There are many people who study 
nutrition in order to see what we should eat to prevent cancer and many 
other researchers who study what behaviors cause and prevent cancer.  While 
it is a controversial subject there are a lot of very well researched 
recommendations designed to prevent or detect cancer.

First, I will discuss certain things to avoid in order to prevent 
cancer. All the things I mention here are generally accepted by the medical 
community.  Probably the most important thing to avoid is cigarette smoke. 
Cigarette smoke has been linked to many kinds of lung cancer as well many, 
many other health problems.  Sun exposure is strongly linked to skin 
cancer, although sun exposure is a more important factor the fairer a 
person's skin is.  Sexual intercourse as a teenager is linked to cancer of 
the cervix (the neck of the uterus.)  Radiation is linked to many kinds of 
cancers, but only in very large doses, not the dose of radiation 
people are exposed to when x-rays are taken.  Colon and breast cancer is 
very common in the U.S. and not as common in other areas in the world, but 
the reason why is not clear.  It could have to do with the typical American 
diet, but exactly what about about the American diet is not agreed on.  
Many, many nutrition experts believe a high fat diet is what causes these 
cancers, but it is not clear if the problem is as straightforward as eating 
a low fat diet.  Almost any doctor in the country will agree that a diet 
high in fruit and vegetables and low in fat defends against many types of 

There are also many screening tests a person can undergo to detect cancer 
before it begins to cause symptoms.   The earlier a cancer is detected 
the more likely it is to be cured.  The tests I will discuss are the 
recommendations of the American Cancer Society.  
1)  Pap Smear- this is a test that is performed by a gynecologist.  Cells 
are scraped from the cervix and looked at under a microscope and 
precancerous changes are looked for.  This test has made a huge difference 
in the number of women who die of cervical cancer.  Every woman who is 
sexually active or over age 18 should have a pap smear every year, even if 
the woman has undergone a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).
2)  Pelvic exam- also performed by a gynecologist, every woman over 18 or 
sexually active should have one every year.
3)  Breast exam- Every woman over age 20 should examine her own breasts 
once a month and have a doctor examine her breasts every once a year.
4)  Mammogram-  After age 45 every woman should have a mammogram every 
year. A mammogram is an x-ray of the breasts.
5)  Sigmoidoscopy- a test where a tube with a camera is inserted into the 
rectum and the walls of the colon are inspected.  Colon cancer is the most 
common cancer in the United States and is very slow growing, but it still 
kills people every day because people are embarrassed and scared about 
having a tube in their rectum, which is really a shame because the test is 
very good at detecting cancer at a very early stage. Once a person has 
symptoms of colon cancer, the disease is very serious and can be deadly, 
but at the early stages there is a very high rate of cure. Every person 
over age 50 should have this test every 3 years.
6)Fecal occult blood test and digital rectal exam- these test are performed 
by inserting a finger in the rectum and feeling for any bumps in the rectum 
itself or in the other organs that can be felt through the wall of the 
rectum (mainly the prostate in men.) Then the doctor will wipe a tiny bit 
of the person's fecal matter on a card which will test for blood, which may 
indicate colon cancer.  These tests should be performed every year after 
age 40.

Many of these tests will not become important for you for many years, but 
you may be able to encourage your parents to see their doctors.  For women 
your age it is very important to visit a gynecologist annually and followup 
on anything that he or she recommends.  Young women are at risk for 
cervical cancer in particular.  You mentioned that cancer runs in your 
family, so next time you visit a doctor you can ask him or her a few 
questions about the kind or kinds of cancer that are in your family such 
as:  Is this cancer hereditary?  If so what screening tests do I need to 
have, and how often?  How can I change my lifestyle in order to minimize my 
chances of getting this kind of cancer?

Good luck on your cancer prevention mission!  Thank you for your question. 
I really enjoyed answering it.

Sarah Martin Mason 
Tulane University School of Medicine

Simone, Joseph.  "Oncology." Cecil Texbook of Medicine. W.B. Saunders. 
2000. p.1029.

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