The "C" Word... Catch it Before it Catches You

Pamela Clayfield, RN
February 4, 2019

People dread the “C” word but being afraid doesn’t exclude anyone from cancer.

Cancer starts when healthy DNA in our cells becomes damaged. The abnormal cells reproduce, usually faster, and form a tumour.  Very few cancers have actual causes but there are common risks that increase the chances such as age, sex, obesity, decreased physical activity, alcohol, smoking and an unhealthy diet.

Many countries have developed Preventative Care programs to screen for abnormal cells before they can morph into full-blown cancer cells.  The most common programs screen for breast, colon and cervical cancer.

As a Registered Nurse I’ve had patients tell me they don’t want to know.  Not knowing lets the cells grow until it’s too late and treatment options are more invasive, expensive or there are no treatment options.  Take advantage and get screened because abnormal cells can be eliminated.

Breast Cancer Screening… Mammograms

Mammograms are special x-rays that can find lumps as small as 3-10mm. Testing should be done every 2 years after the age of 50 until at least 74 to reduce your risk but I recommend continuing as I’ve seen patients diagnosed at 80. Your doctor can give you a requisition every 2 years or you can join a screening program and get reminder letters every 2 years. If you have a family history of breast cancer screening would start at age 40 and there is also genetic testing available.  Having repeat screening done at the same facility allows accurate comparisons to be made with previous imaging which more easily pinpoints possible problem areas. If you have dense breast tissue you should ask for an ultrasound at the sametime as mammogram to avoid unnecessary callbacks.

In addition to mammograms, all women should perform regular self-exams and ask for this at the time of a physical or pap.  Additional risk factors that increase the risk are periods starting at a young age,menopause starting at a late age, having your first child after 30 years of age or not having a child at all and postmenopausal estrogen and progesterone combination hormone replacement.

Colorectal Cancer… Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT)

This test involves a take-home kit that tests smears of your stool for blood that is usually invisible to the naked eye. If positive, it may be the result of small growths that can develop in the lining of the colon, known as polyps, which, ifleft, can develop into cancer.  Polyps leak blood into the stool as it passes. A follow-up colonoscopy is scheduled if the test is positive.

Like mammograms, this test should be done every 2 years from the age of 50 to 74.  If there is a family history in a parent, sibling or child you should skip the FOBT and be fast-tracked for colonoscopy instead.  Like breast cancer, genetic testing is available to determine your risk of developing colon cancer.

Additional risks can be any kind of restricted diet, irritable bowel and diabetes.

Cervical Cancer… Pap (Papanicolou) Test

The biggest cause of cervical cancer is said to be HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) which is a sexually transmitted disease.  When we’re young the body can wash away or repair most of the HPV cells like it gets rid of a cold.  As we age we lose that ability leading to an increased risk of DNA changes and, eventually, the formation of cancer cells.  Though HPV is thought to be the main cause of cervical cancer other risk factors for developing this type of cancer are smoking, a weak immune system and use of the birth control pill but not all the risks are known.

A pap test is done by your doctor, nurse or gynecologist in the office.  They use a special brush to scrape cells off the surface of your cervix which are tested for abnormalities.  You shouldn’t have your period at the time of the test as the blood can obscure the cells. If abnormal cells are identified you will either repeat a pap test or be referred to a gynecologist for a colposcopy.

There is a vaccine for HPV and you should speak to your doctor if interested.  

In Closing

When cancer cells are not found in the breast, colon or cervix, the results can be devastating as they metastasize (spread to other organs) through the body to the brain, liver and bone or uterus and reproductive organs, respectively just like any undiscovered cancer can spread. Once a cancer has metastasized there’s little that can be done.

I had a run in with these abnormal cells. It was scary but it was discovered early enough and it was treatable and curable.  Catching it early enough gave me plenty of options to choose from for treatment.  The more options available, the better chance at a full recovery.

Though cancer is scary, when it’s discovered early enough, it’s treatable, and that’s the best outcome anyone could ask for.

Sincerely in health,
Pamela Clayfield, RN
Registered Nurse