If pandemic fatigue has you contemplating if this could be a good year to skip your annual mammogram or put off a recommended colonoscopy, reconsider. Oncologists in all specialties are reporting that cancer screenings are down because of fears surrounding COVID-19. This has caused concern in the medical community, as it is proven that early detection of cancer can prolong and save lives. Here, Katrina Birdwell, M.D., FACS, of Texas Breast Specialists Methodist Dallas Cancer Center, Mansfield and Waxahachie, answers questions about the importance of getting screened for cancer, whether routine or to address concerning symptoms.
What is the link between early detection of cancer and survival, particularly with cancers that commonly affect women?
“Early detection is linked to higher survival rates. Screening, by definition, means a patient goes for mammography, a colonoscopy, a pelvic exam, or other test. If we find something suspicious when the patient isn’t having pain or hasn’t reported any abnormalities, this may translate into a much higher cure rate. Of course, finding the cancer early doesn’t guarantee a cure, but it greatly increases the chance an effective treatment.”
Because of COVID-19, some women may be fearful of venturing into a medical office or hospital for a cancer screening. Should they be afraid?
“It’s important for patients to understand that in life, we accept risk and benefits for everything. A cancer screening, even now, is typically low risk. In outpatient facilities and hospitals, everything is being done to ensure there are no signs of elevated risk by enforcing mask orders, diligent hygiene practices, surface cleanings, and on-site temperature checks and screening questions prior to entering the office or building. A medical facility is probably safer than a grocery store or large family gatherings right now.”
What cancer screenings should women be getting, particularly if they have a family history of cancer?
“Cervical, breast, and colon cancer screenings are crucial for women and should be discussed with their OB/GYN or family doctor. Lung cancer is also an important cancer to screen for in women who smoke or who are often around smokers. There is now a low-exposure CT scan that can check for early lung cancer that is recommended for people who have smoked a pack of cigarettes or more each day for many years.”
“Walking is a great exercise for heart health. Aim for a goal of 150 minutes a week, or five 30-minute workouts.”Dr. Katy Lonergan, UT Southwestern Medical Center
In addition to cancer screenings, what can women be doing on their own to lower their risk of cancer?
“As we isolate, many people are putting on weight from less activity. Exercise, get some fresh air and sunshine, maintain a healthy body weight, and, of course, don’t smoke. These are all things women can do from home.”
What are some concerning health symptoms women experience that may signal cancer?
“Women tend to be caretakers and will suppress their own health to take care of family members and loved ones. Do not pass go if you see or feel a new lump in your breast, have nipple discharge, a contour change to the breast, or an inverted nipple. These could be breast cancer related. See your doctor if you are experiencing abnormal bleeding not related to your cycle or after menopause. Let your doctor know about blood passed in your stool that you know isn’t because of hemorrhoids, or a change in stool caliber or bowel habits. This could indicate colon cancer.”
Be Skin Savvy
The summer sun may be fading, but its effects on your skin are lasting. Yearly skin-checks by a doctor should be a part of a woman’s health care regimen. Like other cancers, skin cancer is treatable and often curable when caught in its earliest stages. Dr. Thornwell Parker, a physician with Skin Care Consultants and Elevate Medical Spa and Cosmetic Surgery Center, is a specialist in Moh’s Surgery, a micrographic surgery used to treat skin cancer, He says knowing your risk factors for skin cancer, practicing sun safety, and getting regular skin exams from a physician are all critical to maintain skin health and may attribute to a more youthful appearance.
Get Routine Skin Exams From a Physician. They reveal cancers when they are small, allowing for easier and more effective treatment. The frequency of screenings is based on your age, skin type, history, and other risk factors.
Practice Sun Safety. Use protective behaviors daily by avoiding excessive sun exposure, wearing protective clothing, and liberally applying sunscreen with and SPF of 30 or higher containing zinc, titanium, or avobenzone. And don’t forget to wear protective lip balm.
Be Aware of Risk Factors. Your age, skin type, prior skin cancer and damage, family history, and other factors may put you at greater risk for developing sun damage and skin cancer. Discuss your unique skin type with your physician, and be mindful of common risk factors, such as receiving excess sun exposure, tanning salon exposure, having fair skin, having blonde or red hair and blue or green eyes, a family history of skin care, immune suppression, and exposure to radiation or chemicals.
Understand Early Intervention Options. Potential precancers, such as actinic keratoses, may be eliminated before they become skin cancers. Early intervention options are based on the growth’s characteristics and the patient’s age and health. Common treatments include cryotherapy, topical chemotherapy, chemical peels, laser resurfacing, and professional skincare.
Beautiful Skin Starts Here. Sunscreen, Retin A, and fractional laser and photofacial treatments can tighten and even skin tone and for brighter, stronger skin.
Source: Thornwell Parker, M.D., Skin Cancer Consultants