Part of being a health-conscious person is being aware of the early signs of cancer and taking advantage of cancer screening. Cancers caught early are often treatable. An estimated two in five Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and about one in four will die from cancer, making it the leading cause of death in Canada. Having a relationship with a doctor who can provide regular checkups, blood work, and cancer screening simply saves lives. But because fewer people in the Comox Valley have a family doctor, these non-urgent conversations happen less often. People without a family doctor often only use the walk-in clinics for urgent concerns and miss out on regular screening. And what woman wants to go to a stranger at a walk-in clinic for intimate exams? As a naturopathic physician, more of my patients are accessing my services for basic medical screening tests and exams and I’m glad they have options. Here I’ll remind you of the key symptoms you should watch for and tests you should do regularly to screen for cancer.
Paying attention to changes in your body and not ignoring them is important. It’s better to have a symptom checked out and found to be normal than ignore it and have it progress into overt issues. Symptoms that warrant investigation include unexplained: fatigue or weight loss, persistent lymph node enlargement, persistent hoarseness or coughing, bladder changes, any vaginal bleeding after menopause, easy bleeding or bruising, difficulty swallowing, unusual lumps, digestive issues, night sweats, neurological symptoms, changes to moles, white areas in the mouth and more.
Regular testing offers the chance to pick up cancer before it becomes serious. For women, PAP smears test the cervix for abnormal cells that can be or become cervical cancer. Current guidelines are for women aged 25-69 to do a PAP smear every three years. MDs or NDs can offer this service. Only about 75% of eligible Canadian women are up to date on this important test.
Mammograms save lives. Women can just call the Comox Valley North Island Hospital. They can use an MD or an ND as the doctor who receives the results. Since one in five cases of breast cancer is found in women under 50, I agree that women in their 40s should be screened every two years.
The FIT test is a simple stool test that picks up invisible blood in the stool, which can be a sign of colon cancer. About one in 17 Canadians will get colon cancer, so it makes sense to regularly screen for it. Your MD or ND can provide the requisition for this test.
Prostate cancer screening is controversial because the harms associated with testing for and treating prostate cancer can outweigh the benefits. That said, research shows that screening blood tests do save lives, especially for high-risk populations.
I regularly provide skin cancer checks as part of a yearly physical exam, especially a patient has light-coloured skin, eyes and hair, has many moles or freckles, or report having had several blistering sunburns as a child. MDs can refer patients to dermatologists or skin specialists for diligent tracking or treatment of suspicious spots.
I also recommend an annual full basic blood work-up, physical exam and discussion of any health issues that may be cropping up. It’s not possible to do good cancer screening when patients can only bring up one symptom, since it is often the constellation of symptoms that provides the clues needed to suspect cancer. Plus we want to be discussing healthy lifestyle practices to increase the chances of living long and well.
Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician who has practiced in downtown Courtenay since 1997. 250 897-0235 or www.getwellhere.com