Want to hear some bleak statistics?
About 1.68 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2017, according to the National Cancer institute’s data-tracking Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER). Of those diagnosed in 2017, about 67 percent will survive for five years. Just over 600,000 Americans will have died from cancer by the end of 2017.
Approximately 38.5 percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their life. Broken down further, about half of all men, and a third of all women, will receive a cancer diagnosis.
Think of a group of people: your office, your yoga class, the people around you at the coffee shop. Every other man — and every third woman — will someday have to deal with cancer.
Scary, isn’t it? But while the number of new cancer diagnoses per 100,000 people is higher now than it was in 1975 (the first year SEER tracked that statistic), thankfully the overall cancer death rate has declined. And both of these facts are due in part to increased and more effective screening for certain common cancers: breast cancer and colorectal cancer, specifically.
Cancer screening can save lives; I know that for a fact. Sixteen years ago a mammogram identified a lump in my breast that even my doctor couldn’t feel. The cancer had already spread outside my breast; but after nearly nine years of treatment, followed by a determinedly healthy lifestyle, I’ve stayed cancer-free. Had I not had that mammogram, the cancer would no doubt have continued to spread; and I might not be here today, a living testament to cancer screening.
I recently spoke with Robert A. Smith, Ph.D., vice president, cancer screening, at the American Cancer Society (ACS). An award-winning cancer epidemiologist and professor with international experience, Dr. Smith is heavily involved in the launch of Cancer Screen Week, a newly formed initiative to encourage awareness of the benefits of cancer screening for every American. Founded by biotechnology company Genentech, the ACS, Stand Up to Cancer, and Rally Health, Cancer Screen Week will be observed the first week of December each year.
Want to participate? Visit Cancer Screen Week’s website, GetScreenedNow.org, for personalized screening recommendations, as well as suggestions for lowering cancer risk.
This week should prove helpful, because cancer screening is less straightforward than it might seem. Screening isn’t routinely recommended for lung cancer or prostate cancer, two of the most common cancers. For others (e.g., breast cancer) screening guidelines can be perplexing, given conflicting recommendations offered by different organizations.
I asked Dr. Smith to clarify the confusion around certain screening guidelines, as well as offer his own take on reducing cancer risk in general.
HealthCentral (HC): The top four diagnosed cancers in the U.S. this year will be breast, lung, prostate, and colorectal cancer, yet only breast and colorectal are regularly screened for. Why is screening not recommended in the general population for lung or prostate cancer?
Robert A. Smith, Ph.D.: Lung cancer screening is certainly recommended for high-risk adults, those with a past history of smoking. We strongly recommend lung cancer screening if you were ever a smoker. As for prostate cancer, men should talk to their doctor and make an individual decision, based on their own health and risk factors. This is true for other cancers as well.
HC: What weight do the US Preventive Services Task Force [USPSTF] recommendations for cancer screening carry? I understand you lead the development of screening guidelines for the ACS, and the ACS disagrees with USPSTF guidelines for breast cancer screening. Does the ACS have different recommendations for other cancers, as well? It can become confusing for people to know which organization’s guidelines to go by.
Dr. Smith: The guidelines for both are actually quite similar. Both recommend that women can start screening mammograms at age 40, if they decide to do so after speaking with their doctor. The ACS actually recommends starting at age 45, while the USPSTF extends that start date to age 50. The key is, both agree that a regular schedule of screening mammography is important.
HC: Are ACS guidelines used by the Cancer Screen Week site, getscreenednow.org?
Dr. Smith: The guidelines used for the Cancer Screen Week tool are those of the USPSTF, because those guidelines are linked to the Affordable Care Act and are used by insurance companies to determine coverage for adults with private insurance. There should be no out-of-pocket cost for cancer screening that’s indicated by the USPSTF guidelines. The ACS guidelines for cancer screening can be found at cancer.org.
HC: Aside from regular screening to identify certain cancers early, is there any general advice you can give the typical American to lower his or her cancer risk?
Dr. Smith: Living a healthy lifestyle is certainly important: having a healthy BMI [body mass index], eating well, drinking alcohol in moderation, and getting regular physical activity [are important too]. But while all of that is important, getting regular screening tests is just as important. Most people who get screened will get good news; it can be reinforcing to hear. A very small percentage will find they have cancer, but often it’s been detected early, so chances of successful treatment are high.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.