It’s no secret that cancer in all its forms touches the lives of millions of Americans each year. Not only are millions of people diagnosed with cancer, friends and family members provide care to patients and help shoulder any burdens during treatment.
In 2016 there were an estimated 1.65 million new cancer cases diagnosed in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer was also responsible for the death of more than 595,000 U.S. residents last year as well.
Although there are a high number of people diagnosed with various types of cancer each year, many of these cases are preventable thanks to diagnostic tests such as mammograms, colonoscopies and Pap smears. Each of these tests are performed daily at St. Clair Hospital. Countless patients benefit from the procedures, particularly when cancer is detected early and treated, allowing the patients to live normal lives.
Dr. Tara Grahovac, a breast cancer surgeon at St. Clair, says mammograms are a “fantastic tool” that steadily increase the rate of early detection of breast cancer. The mammogram is an x-ray of the breast that is used to detect the possibility of breast cancer in women, as well as some men.
At St. Clair, Grahovac commends the quiet and peaceful facility for women’s health, which includes mammogram testing. Women come in for screening and receive X-rays from two different positions. There may be a momentary bit of discomfort as the breasts are flattened for the procedure, but Grahovac says it’s fairly minimal and the process is over quickly.
“We do a good job of mitigating comfort,” she says. “It’s a less intimidating experience than women are expecting. Before mammograms it required breast symptoms to identify breast cancer. Then there was a much higher rate of lymph-node positive breast cancer.”
Once a mammogram is complete, doctors can examine the images to determine if there are any questionable lumps. Grahovac says there’s a high probability that any concerning lumps or spots can be picked up. The test can detect cancer in its earliest stages, even so-called Stage 0.
“If we catch Stage 0 or Stage 1 cancer, survival is excellent,” she says. “That’s the ultimate goal. Once you get a diagnosis, the most important thing is talking with your doctor about what types of cancer are out there and how it should be treated.”
St. Clair houses a comprehensive breast cancer center where patients can undergo the recommended treatments to arrest the disease.
“With early detection, breast cancer is very treatable,” Grahovac says. “That’s why it’s so important to get the mammogram. Even if we find something there’s a very good chance that we can treat it and patients can live a happy life.”
Another test that is key to preventing cancer is the Pap smear. Dr. Paula Duncan, a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics, touted the benefits of pap smears in detecting and preventing cervical cancer. The simple test takes a sample of cells from the cervix to check for abnormalities that could indicate cervical cancer. With the Pap smear doctors can diagnose if a patient has the human papillomavirus, HPV, which is a leading cause of cervical cancer. Duncan calls regular testing for HPV in age-appropriate patients one of the “greatest advances” in gynecology.
“Cervical cancer is caused by a virus,” Duncan says. “There is a vaccine available that is recommended for both girls and boys. The fact that you can be vaccinated for the cancer is incredibly important.”
Pap smears are recommended for women starting at 21 years of age. Until the age of 65, it’s suggested that women get a pap smear every few years, but maintain regular appointments with their gynecologists, Duncan says.
Although the Pap smear has proven to be effective in detecting and reducing the effects of cervical cancer, Duncan says there are some women who are afraid of the test. However, that number seems to be fewer and fewer the longer she practices. The reason, she suspects, is that many younger women have the idea ingrained in them by older women that the Pap smear is an important test that must be performed.
“This makes my job so much easier,” she says. “Women are so easy to work with. They’re willing to undergo tests that can prevent cancer. Women are highly motivated to do what they can to prevent these kinds of things.”
The test takes about 15 to 20 minutes to perform. If doctors discover an abnormality, they can discuss treatment options depending on the nature of the discovery.
Colonoscopies are the preferred method of preventing colon cancer. In this process a camera is rectally inserted into a patient. It winds its way through the large intestines and then into the colon where doctors look for polyps or other aberrations. When polyps are found they are removed and sent off for testing to determine if they’re cancerous. If polyps remain in the colon, there’s an increased chance the polyps could become cancerous.
“Colonoscopies aren’t thought of fondly, but without endoscopic surveillance we don’t have a good system to detect colon cancer,” says Dr. Scott A. Holekamp, a colorectal surgeon at St. Clair.
Colonoscopies are typically recommended beginning at age 50, unless there is an immediate relative, such as a parent, who has been diagnosed with colon cancer, then the recommendation is to begin testing 10 years before that person’s age at the time of diagnosis. If patients are “clean” after the colonoscopy, Holekamp says the general recommendation is to continue screenings every 10 years. However, if polyps are found and are not cancerous, then the recommendation is every three to five years.
While many people, particularly men, put off colonoscopies, Holekamp says the screening test has been proven to reduce the rate of colon cancer.
“I’m a polyp hunter,” he says. “My job is to look for polyps and help patients. I take a thorough look at the colon when I’m in there and do what I can to help patients.”