How to beat cancer: prevention and early detection

One of the first things people want to know when they learn I had cancer is how it was discovered. There’s an element of personal concern in this question that’s perfectly natural—if I get cancer, will I know right away?—and I think what folks are hoping to hear is that all cancers in their earliest stages present clear, distinguishable symptoms that will prompt them to follow up with a medical professional. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many cancers, and all people, especially those at higher risk due to things like long-term exposure to carcinogens (tobacco, for example), a family history of cancer, or age (cancer risk naturally increases as we get older), should take a proactive approach to cancer detection and prevention.

Cancer can appear anywhere in the body. Not all cancers produce symptoms, but the symptoms of those that do depend on where the cancer is located. For example, colon cancer can produce blood in the stool, diarrhea, and constipation. But gallbladder cancer often produces no symptoms until it’s reached an advanced stage.

Some cancers are more common than others. The three most common cancers for women are cancers of the breast, lung, and colon; for men, cancers of the lung, prostate, and colon.  There are eight other “common” cancers (defined in the United States as a cancer that produces 40,000 or more new cases in the U.S. each year): bladder, endometrial, kidney (renal cell), leukemia, melanoma, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic, and thyroid cancer.

Taking a proactive approach to cancer detection and prevention requires action. The downside is pretty small—you have to do some work—while the upside is enormous: knowing you’re cancer-free, or getting treated in the earliest stages, when your chances of beating cancer are excellent. Here’s what you need to do—based on recommendations from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LIVESTRONG website:

First, pay attention to your body and see a medical professional if you have persistent or unusual symptoms. Sores that fail to heal, obvious change to a wart or mole, difficulty swallowing, nagging cough or hoarseness, abnormal bleeding or discharge, changes in the bowel or bladder habits, persistent indigestion, bone pain, and thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere in the body may be associated with cancer.

Second, get screened for certain cancers regularly. If you don’t have a primary care physician, get one. If the primary care physician you are seeing does not arrange for you to get regular screenings, it’s time to find a new physician. Women and girls should regularly see a gynecologist. Women should begin breast self-exam (BSE) and clinical breast exam (CBE) in their 20s, for example, and cervical cancer screening three years after they begin having vaginal intercourse. Men and women should have annual blood tests for colorectal cancer starting at age 50, and men should discuss prostate cancer screenings with their doctor at age 50 as well (age 45 for African-American men). For a complete set of screening guidelines, check out the American Cancer Society’s “Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer”.

Third, do things that are proven to prevent certain cancers, and don’t do things that are proven to cause certain cancers. Here’s the list:

  • For girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26, get the HPV vaccine.
  • Stop smoking. Now. You can get help here and here, or access your state’s quitline by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)
  • If you’re not already there, get down to a healthy weight. Check out WebMD’s Healthy Eating and Diet Center or The Daily Plate section on LIVESTRONG.
  • Get in shape. How? Look here and here.
  • Eat healthy, with plenty of fruits and vegetables. WebMD’s Healthy Eating and Diet Center has tons of articles and tips and you can find healthy recipes on The Food Network website.
  • Limit your alcohol intake, or don’t drink at all.
  • Protect your skin, and do it by covering your skin from the sun, using a healthy, effective sunscreen, or both. Check out Ciao, Cancer! on sunscreen, posts one and two.
  • Know your family history—and make sure your doctor does—and learn your risks. How? Ask your doctor!
  • Remember to pay attention to your body and get screened regularly.

I’ll tell you later how I discovered I had a brain tumor—and later, brain cancer. In the meantime, get active about cancer detection and prevention. And enjoy good health!

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  1. July 29th, 2010 | Mulk/JCocker/Slash says:

    I’m always intrigued when I talk to the campers at First Descents of all the crazy ways their cancer was discovered. It still amazes me that cancer isn’t considered sooner as an option for diagnosis given the prevalence of it. It definitely seems as though it is a consumer advocate sort of thing – where you have to be very aware of your body and then be willing to push for proper investigation.

  2. July 29th, 2010 | Duper says:

    You’re absolutely right about the need to be a strong advocate. I think it’s particularly true for young people who are experiencing chronic symptoms. Since cancer is more prevalent among older populations, the same symptoms in young people that a doctor would quickly suspect were related to cancer if the patient were older are often attributed to other causes. Diagnosis is delayed, and treatment starts later in the cancer cycle.

    This advocacy concept is intriguing, and merits a post or two, methinks.


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