Creating A Healthy Life
It’s the start of a new year, when people of all ages and with all types of medical histories make a pledge to be healthier. But what does 'being healthy' mean?
"A healthy lifestyle should include cancer screenings as part of one’s standard care," says William Duffy, MD, a primary care physician at Pennsylvania Hospital. "Patients should schedule them regularly, just as they would any other annual task. For the vast majority, the tests are not uncomfortable and the results are normal."
Why Be Screened?
If your results are likely to be normal, why be screened? "Early detection is the key," says Brian Englander, MD, chief, breast imaging and director of the Women’s Imaging Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. "Screening enables doctors to detect cancer, often at its earliest stage, when treatments are most effective."
And the impact of screening is far reaching. "It’s important to remember that not only are you taking control of your health but you are also helping your loved ones, your children and your grandchildren. If cancer is found, you are giving them a precious gift—awareness. They know they are at risk for a particular disease and, with you as a role model, will likely be encouraged to do their own screenings and seek treatment if they need it," says Dr. Duffy.
You Know Your Body Best
Women are encouraged to have mammograms annually after age 40 and pap smears should be completed annually for every woman, beginning when she becomes sexually active.
"The FDA also recently approved the HPV vaccine for girls ages 9 to 26," says Ann Honebrink, MD, obstetric gynecologist at Penn Medicine Radnor. "The vaccine can prevent cervical cancer at a time when women are most likely to contract the virus that causes it."
Although beneficial to girls and young women, there is no clinical evidence at this time to suggest the vaccine is helpful to women over the age of 26.
“…paying attention to your health is the single most important thing you can do because without it, there wouldn’t be anything else.”
Self-examination is another important component of cancer screening for people of all ages. "Women should perform breast self-exams monthly," continues Dr. Honebrink. "The more self-exams you perform, the better you get at it. Also, it’s important to become familiar with what your breast feels like so you can tell your doctor if you notice anything different."
"Women are often the first to find an abnormality," agrees Dr. Duffy. "You know the differences in your body better than anyone else. I also encourage men to perform testicular exams for the same reason."
Advances Improve Diagnosis and Treatment
Advances in radiology are improving diagnosis and treatment options for many cancer patients. "Digital mammography has shown great promise, especially for women with dense breasts. Early studies suggest digital mammography may have better detection rates with slightly less radiation than conventional mammography," says Dr. Englander.
Breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also increasing. The technology can be used preventatively in some patients with a strong family history of breast cancer or who have abnormalities based on biopsy. "Mammography is still the gold standard when it comes to breast cancer screening," says Dr. Englander, "but it is good that other technologies exist for patients who need them."
Those other technologies include minimally invasive biopsies using ultrasound, radiographic or MRI guidance. These biopsies are performed with a very small needle and require no sutures or stitches. They can be performed quickly, create limited discomfort and offer a shorter recovery. "The results from minimally invasive biopsies are just as good as surgical," says Dr. Englander. "If surgery is required, the same technique can be used for tissue diagnosis before surgery so that the surgical oncologist can better plan the surgery."
Be Your Own Champion
Planning is the key not only to more successful surgery, if necessary, but also better health. Take the time to get your annual tests performed — mammography, pap smears, colonoscopy, skin cancer screenings, and other screenings your physician recommends.
"People who lead a healthy lifestyle tend to have a healthier outlook and are likely to do better if they do get sick," says Dr. Duffy. "In this country, people tend to take their health for granted. We lead a very busy life in a very busy world and paying attention to your health is the single most important thing you can do — because without it, there wouldn’t be anything else."
For more information about radiation therapy options at the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital, call 800-789-PENN (7366). You can also request an appointment online.