We all have loved ones who have battled cancer. But as a doctor I am here to tell you we needn’t be in this place. The medical community has worked hard to manage cancer and all our research has pointed to one thing – early diagnosis.
Unfortunately we still don’t understand the complex interplay of the role of environmental pollution, poor genetics and chronic lifestyle disease- all of which predispose us to cancer.
So, at what stage should you start getting vigilant?
I would start at the immunisation stage. Two cancers in particular can be tackled in this stage itself.
- The HPV vaccine for young girls has shown encouraging results by preventing the virus that causes most cervical cancers while also keeping other infections at bay. If you are a parent of a young girl and waiting for hard evidence, this is it - get her immunised.
- Hepatitis B heightens your chances of liver cancer so a hepatitis vaccination acts as a preventive measure. If you can vaccinate yourself in any way against a disease as debilitating as cancer, it is worth it.
Here’s a word of caution - once immunized, do not consider yourself fully protected against cancer in its many forms. Men and women need to start getting tested by 40 if you had a family history of cancer, at 45 if you fall into a risky category and at 50 if you are at average risk.
Dividing by gender, I shall first walk you through the precautions women must begin to take as they age:
Breast Cancer Screening
Even though practitioners have stopped recommending it, I would suggest that you continue to do breast examinations on yourself. It is a good way to stay familiar with how your body feels to you and you will be able to report if you suddenly feel a change. Besides this, by 40 start going for mammograms every two years and begin to opt for them yearly as when your doctor recommends it. This test can locate even tiny tumors and help you get treated as early as possible.
Lung Cancer Screening
Lung cancer can be fatal for women so if you chew tobacco or smoke, get low dose computed tomography (LDCT) scans every year from when you turn 50. LCDTs provide images of superior quality and can detect abnormalities well before they turn into a serious issue.
Colorectal Cancer Screening
One of the most common cancers in women is caused by growths on the colon called polyps. There are four types of tests for colon cancer and it is important to consult with your doctor before choosing one. The non-invasive kinds are fecal tests and stool DNA tests. Fecal tests check to see if there are tiny specks of blood in your feces whereas DNA tests check for traces of polyps or cancer cells as well. If you fall into a high-risk category, you may require more intensive testing, in the form of a colonoscopy or a flexible stigmoidoscopy, which is less thorough.
Cervical Cancer Screening
For the women who did not have the vaccine while they were growing up, this is a cancer that requires regular testing. It could be in the form of a pap smear or an HPV test. Women are encouraged to get pap smears every three years once sexually active and as they age, HPV tests should also be incorporated into routine tests.
Now Lets come to men:
Lung cancer and colorectal cancers are also a concern for men. Lung cancer especially is the biggest threat to men’s health with smoking being the key reason. For the lungs and colon, men must go through the same tests as women, at roughly about the same age.
Prostate Cancer Screening
It’s the second deadliest cancer and you need to schedule these tests regularly from 40s onwards. A prostate specific antigen (PSA) test measures the level of PSA in your blood to deduce whether you could be at risk and a digital rectum exam explores for lumps in the prostate. The choice of test should be dependent on what the doctor thinks is right for you.
Along with these tests, be clear about your family history and consider getting your genetic testing to determine your risk. Get yourself an annual medical checkup after the age of 40! Prevention is always better than cure.
(With over 20 years of clinical, investment and operational experience in the healthcare sector, Dr Amit Varma brings with him a domain expertise that links all facets of healthcare. He is a reputed physician with diverse healthcare management leadership roles and has headed numerous companies)