Fighting cancer with screenings, awareness

While there are lots of local effort to raise awareness about mental and personal health, many Santa Clarita Valley residents still aren’t sure what diseases they should be screening for in order to protect their or a loved one’s well-being.

In fact, according to family physician Dr. Christian Raigosa, there are a myriad of different screenings one can perform throughout their life, but how often and which ones depend on a person’s age and lifestyle choices

One of the more talked-about screenings is for breast cancer, which has gained traction in mainstream culture due to the proliferation of pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, but there are lots of ways that people can be more cautious and proactive about their health, according to the experts.

“If there’s any family history or if there is a finding on an exam and you feel a breast lump (or other type of cancer), then obviously that changes the equation. So, at that point you’d need to be evaluated earlier than most and would likely need additional studies,” Raigosa said, before speaking on a few diseases that are treatable if found early enough.

Cervical Cancer

A cervical cancer screening is for women between the ages of 21 and 65,” Raigosa said, “but the frequency at which they’re screened is different depending on their age.”

For ages 21 to 30, it’s recommended that woman get screened once every 3 years. If one is between the ages of 31 and 65, then the recommendation is every 5 years, Raigosa said, mentioning the screening is done with a routine paps smear and (human papillomavirus) test.

“So it’s really important for productive aged woman to do this,” Raigosa said, adding, “The idea is you’re trying to capture the risk of developing HPV, because HPV is the virus that causes the changes in the cervix that are the associated with cervical cancer.”

The screening intervals are shorter when you’re younger — between the ages of 21 and 30 — simply because the incidence of HPV is higher in that age group, Raigosa said. “As a woman matures, the likelihood of developing HPV lessens so the need to screen lengthens to every five years.”

Because cervical cancer is often detected before it becomes advanced, the incidence and death rates for this specific disease are relatively low, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the same cannot always be said when it comes to other types of cancer.

Breast Cancer

“The way we screen for breast cancer is with mammograms or mammography,” Raigosa said. “There’s still a lot of variation in what is the right age to start the screening, but there is consensus that women who are between the ages of 50 and 75 should get a mammogram at least every two years. This increases the likelihood of being able to capture a breast cancer that may or may not be felt on a self-exam.”

However, Raigosa cautioned that self-check ups can sometimes be “falsely reassuring” to someone who is older and doesn’t get a mammogram because the research shows that the mammograms — thanks to the technology that exists now — is much more sensitive than the breast self-check.

“Two to three decades before today, this wasn’t the case,” Raigosa said. “It was thought that self-checks were the way to go; but now the sensitivity of the testing is so good that we can pick up the microcalcification that you can’t feel on an exam. This is why it’s so highly recommended to get the exam.”

Breast cancer is known as the second most common form cancer and one of the more infamous diseases in society today, according to Cancer.org, but the third most common cause of cancer deaths in America — colon cancer — is among one of the most preventable.

Colon cancer

“Colon cancer is really prevalent in our population,” Raigosa said, as he explained the two prevalent forms of testing for the disease.

One way is through a colonoscopy and the other with the use of a Fecal Immunochemical Test, “which is a stool study that tests for evidence of blood in the stool,” according to the physician.

“Those are two well-established ways to test for colon cancer, and they are both equally efficacious,” meaning they have similar sensitivities and abilities to detect cancer in the colon, Raigosa added. “However, the colonoscopy is required to be done once every 10 years and the Fecal Globin test is needed once a year.”

The screening age for both starts at age 50 and continues on up until age 75, and since they’re both equally effective, it’s a personal choice between the patient and their physician to decide what is the best course for them, Raigosa said. “Personally, I like to recommend the colonoscopy, but there are patients who would prefer not to have a procedure like that so then at that point the Fecal Globin test would be just as effective.”

Like mammograms, the stool study method has been around for some time, but today’s technology has boosted the efficacy of the test, Raigosa said, adding, “The whole goal is to pick up colon cancer at an early age… because colon cancer is treatable and in many cases it is preventable.”

If doctors were to discover a potentially cancerous polyp, “we’d be able to remove it on the spot, which prevents the progression of colon cancer,” according to Raigosa.

However, the doctor added, “If you had a 45-year old mother diagnosed with colon cancer and an uncle who was also diagnosed, then that’s significant,” because there is a correlation between age and genetics that would lead one to get checked earlier. Raigosa said that would be something that would be discussed more in-depth with a personal physician if necessary.

“As long as you’re on top of it and you’re getting your screenings done, you improve the likelihood of staying disease free or picking up a diagnosis of cancer early so that you can get treated and increase the odds of recovering,” Raigosa said. “These really are only three of the hundreds types of cancers that we can develop, but these are the three that are: the most common — the ones where we have developed effective screening strategies that have a high likelihood of effecting the outcomes of survival.”

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