By Sue Sveum
We all want to live a happy, healthy life — and being present for life’s important moments is what matters the most. Staying on top of vital health screenings, such as getting a mammogram or colonoscopy, is a crucial part of preventive care for women. Learn about why screenings are important, when to schedule them and why it’s never too late to set up a screening.
“It’s never too late to get back into screening protocols,” says Dr. Michelle Mackay, radiation oncologist with SSM Health Dean Medical Group.
Early Detection Saves Lives
There are many reasons to have regular cancer screenings. Chief among them, according to Dr. Alissa Weber, oncologist with SSM Health Dean Medical Group, is that most cancers are more curable when detected early — and in some cases may require less intensive or aggressive treatments.
“Melanoma, squamous cell skin cancers, breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and head and neck cancers are good examples,” she says. “In fact, early detection of melanoma and lung cancer can often be cured by surgery alone.”
Another benefit of screenings is that in some cases, such as colon cancer, symptoms aren’t present until it’s advanced — but early detection can help find cancer in curable stages. “Cervical cancer is another one that’s important to catch early, because more advanced tumors require aggressive treatment that can affect fertility for younger women,” Dr. Weber explains. “But it’s easier to treat in early or precancerous stages.”
The recommended age to start a particular screening varies by cancer type and family history. Here are the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) current screening guidelines:
- Colorectal cancers – age 45
- Cervical cancer – ages 21-65
- Breast cancer – women ages 50-74; sometimes recommended at age 40, especially with family history of breast cancer
- Lung cancer – adults ages 50-80 with at least a 20-year smoking history and currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years
- Prostate cancer – no longer recommended except for men with high risk
“Unfortunately, there are some cancers such as ovarian and pancreatic that don’t have effective or efficient screening procedures for the general population,” says Dr. Weber, “so they’re often diagnosed at an advanced stage.”
Ask your doctor about what age you should start screenings for various cancers and when to stop screenings — which will depend on your own health history.
“It may be appropriate to begin screenings at a younger age if there’s a family history putting you at higher risk for certain cancers,” says Dr. Weber. “These may occur at earlier ages and at a much higher incidence — so screening recommendations may differ.”
No family history? No matter, cautions Dr. Weber. You still need routine screenings. “The vast majority of cancers are sporadic, meaning they occur in patients with no family history of cancer,” she says. “I strongly recommend talking to your doctor about what cancer screenings might be appropriate for you, based on your age and health history.”
It’s Never too Late for a Screening
If you missed your mammogram or other routine medical screening during the height of the pandemic, you’re not alone. But if you’re still behind on your screening or wellness check, Dr. Michelle Mackay, radiation oncologist with SSM Health Dean Medical Group, recommends that you make an appointment with your primary care provider to get back on track. There’s no need to wait until your next annual physical.
“It’s never too late to get back into the screening protocols,” she says. “And it’s our best chance to catch cancer early.” Your PCP can recommend appropriate screenings for you based on a variety of health and lifestyle factors, including the following:
- Your age
- Tobacco use
- Your biological sex
- Personal health history
- Family history
Beginning with appropriate screenings, here are the steps Dr. Mackay recommends to keep you on track to achieve and maintain your best health.
- Screening. Why is this so important? According to Dr. Mackay, keeping on top of recommended screenings is the best way to detect cancer early. “Early detection leads to a better prognosis and outcome,” she explains, adding that earlier stage disease can generally be treated with less toxic options, resulting in better tolerance of the treatment.
- Talk to your doctor. In addition to scheduling recommended screenings, Dr. Mackay stresses the importance of bringing up any body changes to your physician when you notice them. Maria, one of Dr. Mackay’s patients, can attest to the importance of both. After discovering a lump in her right breast, she mentioned it to her PA, was referred for imaging, and found to have two separate, early-stage cancers — one in each breast.
- Follow up. According to Dr. Mackay, following through with further testing is equally important for staging the disease correctly and providing optimal treatment recommendations. In Maria’s case, she had multiple images, breast biopsies and an MRI to determine her best course of treatment.
- Prevention. And finally, along with routine screenings, Dr. Mackay stresses the importance of preventative measures. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle — with proper nutrition and hydration, staying active and getting adequate rest — is so important in preventing cancer,” she says. “It decreases your risk of developing multiple diseases — and if you are diagnosed with a condition, a healthy lifestyle will help keep you stronger and set [you] up for better success during treatment.”
SSM Health Cancer Survivors and Thrivers Ice Cream Social
Join SSM Health on Sunday, June 4, from 1-3 p.m. at Turville Bay Radiation Oncology Center (1104 John Nolen Dr.) as they celebrate National Cancer Survivor’s Day. Gather with cancer survivors, caregivers, providers and staff at this uplifting event. They’ll be scooping up 10 flavors of Chocolate Shoppe ice cream while enjoying music by the Go Deans. Come celebrate with us!
It had been a while since Robin’s last physical, so when her provider suggested that she also schedule a mammogram, Robin willingly agreed. Like most of us, she expected her routine mammogram to be just that — routine. So, she was a bit surprised when it came back “abnormal.”
An ultrasound-guided aspiration confirmed the presence of abnormal cells. The next step was meeting with a surgeon, where she learned that cells can be normal, abnormal, precancerous or cancer. A lumpectomy and removal of tissue equivalent in size to a plum showed atypical ductal hyperplasia — or pre-cancerous cells.
As a precaution, Dr. Alissa Weber, Robin’s oncologist, put her on a five-year regimen of Tamoxifen. During that time, Robin took her medicine, and had regular screenings and oncology appointments. “When Dr. Weber took me off Tamoxifen, I panicked!” she remembers. “That was my crutch.” She was worried about stopping it — until Dr. Weber assured her that five years was enough to kill all of those cells.
“Building that trust between patient and doctor is huge,” says Robin. “I’m just so grateful to everyone from the nurse practitioner who first told me to get a mammogram to the radiology tech and all of my doctors. They were amazing.”
It’s been almost nine years since Robin’s journey began, and she’s understandably 100% in support of screenings for any type of cancer. “That early diagnosis may have saved my life,” she says. Her advice to friends, family — and everyone else — is simple: See your doctor and get your screenings on time.
And to her health care providers, she says, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Like many women, Maria has an active life. Part of the sandwich generation, she’s a busy mom, wife and daughter. Oh, and she’s also a nursing professor — who knows the importance of routine mammograms.
But between those screenings, she was surprised to discover a lump in her right breast. “At the time, I thought it was probably just a fibroid,” she says. “I’m very fortunate that I discovered it — and so grateful that my husband pushed me to get it checked out.”
Maria’s situation was complicated by not having a primary care provider at the time. “My doctor had moved away, so I made an appointment with a physician’s assistant,” she says. She knew she should mention the lump, but felt a little uncomfortable sharing with someone she’d never met before. But it’s lucky that she did.
She was referred for a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound and bilateral biopsies — all on the same day. “As a nurse, I knew these were normal steps,” she says, “but in those moments when they were out of the room, I realized, ‘Oh no, this is not good.’”
The tests revealed two separate early-stage cancers — invasive ductal carcinoma — in both breasts. Maria underwent successful bilateral lumpectomies and radiation and will follow up with an antiestrogen drug such as Tamoxifen.
“I’ll always wonder if I didn’t say something and have that mammogram, would I be in a different situation now?” she says. “If my experience helps anyone else, I’ll be happy. It’s easy not to make time for yourself. But take the time — you’re worth it!”