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What Blood Tests Are Used To Diagnose Cancer

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Mar 21, 2019
Last Modified Date: Mar 21, 2019
Published Date: Aug 25, 2017

Guide: What You Need To Know About Cancer and Cancer Testing

  1. Cancer Detection ToolsChemical structure of prostate specific antigen
  2. Breast Cancer Facts
  3. Ovarian Cancer Testing
  4. Cancer Signs And Risk Factors
  5. Cancer Causes And Prevention
  6. Supporting A Loved One With Cancer

Blood Tests: Important Tools in Early Cancer Detection, Diagnosis and Treatment

While there are many different types of cancer, something that virtually all forms have in common are that they can be most successfully treated when diagnosed in their early stages. Of course, diagnostic testing is essential to early detection and treatment. That includes a number of blood tests that can indicate the presence of cancer in the body. Here, we'll discuss the most commonly used cancer blood tests and how they can help doctors diagnose this pernicious disease.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

This common blood test measures the amount and condition of the various types of blood cells in a sample of blood, including red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. While it is used for many other purposes, this test can also help in diagnosing some blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, by detecting abnormal cells in the blood or abnormal amounts of typical cells. It can also be helpful in determining whether a cancer has spread to the bone marrow, as well as monitoring the progress and/or side effects of cancer treatments.

Tumor Marker Tests

Tumor markers are chemicals made by tumor cells or by the immune system in response to cancer. Various tests can be used to detect tumor markers in the blood, giving your doctor an indication that cancer may be present in the body. Among the most commonly administered tumor marker tests are:

Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) Testing – Commonly used as a screening tool for the early detection of prostate cancer, PSA testing measures levels of a protein produced by prostate gland cells, called prostate-specific antigen, in the blood. Elevated levels of PSA can give your doctor an early indication of the development of prostate cancer. However, it is important to note that a number of benign prostate conditions can also cause PSA levels to rise.

Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA) Testing – This antigen, while present in a developing fetus, is not normally present in the blood of healthy adults. When detected in the blood by CEA testing, it can indicate the presence of one of several forms of cancer, including cancers of the colon, rectum, pancreas, breast, ovary or lung.Cancer Antigens for Breast, Pancreatic and Ovarian Cancer

AFP (Alpha-Fetoprotein) Testing – While this antigen is found in the blood of healthy pregnant women, since it is produced by fetal development, it is not normally present in adult men or non-pregnant women. When it is detected by AFP testing, it can be an indication of cancers that include liver, testicular or ovarian cancer.

Cancer Antigen 125 (CA-125) Testing – This antigen is used as a tumor marker for ovarian cancer. A protein found on the surface of many ovarian cancer cells, blood tests to measure levels of this antigen are used to aid in diagnosing ovarian cancer, monitoring the progress of ovarian cancer treatments and detecting a recurrence of the disease.

Cancer Antigen 19-9 (CA 19-9) Testing – This blood test looks for antigens in the bloodstream that are used as markers for pancreatic cancer. It can be used to help diagnose cancer of the pancreas as well as to monitor treatment progress.

Cancer Antigen 27.29 (CA 27.29) Testing – The CA 27.29 blood test measures the level of CA 27.29 antigen in the bloodstream, which is an indication of breast cancer. This test is the only blood test that is specific to cancer of the breast, and is used to aid diagnosis, monitor treatment and detect the spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body.

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) Testing – A well-known indicator of early pregnancy, hCG is also produced by some cancer cells and is considered a tumor marker, helping to detect germ cell cancers in men and non-pregnant women. Germ cell cancers are tumors that develop from an egg or sperm, including testicular and ovarian cancers.Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) glycoprotein hormone

Blood Protein Testing – A blood test that looks for certain abnormal immune system proteins (immunoglobulins) in the bloodstream. Blood protein testing is used to detect multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

HDL Cholesterol Blood Testing And Lower Cancer Risk

New research provides another reason to monitor your cholesterol through blood testing and increase your High density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol, also known as good cholesterol, through diet and exercise. The study suggests that increasing your HDL by 10 points can reduce your risk of cancer by one third over the following years. HDL has long been known to decrease your risk of heart disease.

Blood tests that can detect the signs of various forms of cancer are important diagnostic tools, often providing the first indication that a person may have cancer. However, it is important to note that, in most cases, further testing is necessary for a definitive diagnosis. Generally, that will include biopsy, which is a procedure to obtain a sample of potential cancerous cells for testing. Additionally, false positives and false negatives are possible with some cancer blood tests, so it is important that other symptoms and health factors are taken.

Breast Cancer - What You Should Know

Every year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are told they have breast cancer. On the upside, deaths from the disease are declining as research and advances in diagnosis and treatment continue. The five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer was 75 percent in 1974. Today, it’s closer to 90 percent. That’s real progress despite the fact that breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in women and the main cause of cancer death in women ages 40 - 55. Most of us know someone who has, or had, breast cancer.

Showing support for breast cancer survivors and research

However, as a media broadcaster was heard to say, cancer is a word, not a sentence, as in death sentence. In fact, today some types of breast cancer are managed conditions like heart disease and diabetes and this important fact remains: most cancers, including breast cancer, are curable if detected early.

Common Questions About Breast Cancer

What is cancer and how does it occur?

Cancer is actually a group of diseases that begin in the body’s basic units of life – the cells. There are trillions of cells in the human body that combine to form skin, muscle, bone, breast and blood. In normal cell behavior, cells grow and divide to produce more cells as needed. After a limited number of divisions, the cell is programmed to die, replaced by new, younger cells. What happens, however, when cancer develops, is a loss of control in normal cell growth. In simple terms, cancer is the overgrowth of abnormal cells. Over time, these abnormal cells form a mass of tissue – a growth or a tumor – that invades and destroys normal tissue. These abnormal cells can also spread throughout the body, resulting in metastatic cancer.

Research continues on the many causes of cancer, a complex disease that develops as a step-by-step process before it becomes lethal. What researchers know for certain is that while exact causes of many cancers are not yet known, both external and internal factors play a role in cancer developing, including genetics, aging, lifestyle choices, exposure to carcinogens and infections.

What are the Different Types of Breast Cancer and its Different Stages?

In breast cancer, knowing where the tumor is located, its size, type and stage, are extremely important in understanding treatment and outcome. Types of breast cancer are categorized depending upon how they look under the microscope. Some may also be combinations of different types. For details visit the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society.

As a general guideline, breast cancer is categorized as:

  • Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – refers to abnormal cells found that haven’t invaded surrounding tissue.
  • Lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS) – abnormal cells contained within a lobule of the breast but haven’t invaded surrounding tissue.
  • Invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) – also known as infiltrating and capable of traveling to other parts of the body. About 70 percent of invasive breast cancers are this type.
  • Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) – less common than IDC; starts in milk-producing lobule and invades surrounding tissue.

A graph showing cellular changes that can lead to breast cancer

Like many cancers, breast cancer is divided into stages:

  • Stage O – localized; hasn’t yet spread.
  • Stage I - an early stage of invasive breast cancer; has not spread beyond the breast.
  • Stage II – tumor can vary in size and has spread to the lymph nodes but is still contained within a certain region.
  • Stage III – a locally advanced cancer; tumor may be large.
  • Stage IV – metastatic cancer; has spread to other parts of the body.

(Sources: The 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer, D. Bonner, Fireside Books, 2008; The Mayo Clinic Breast Cancer Book, Good Books, 2012)

What are some of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

The fight against breast cancer is ongoing

While finding a lump in your breast or having one appear on a mammogram doesn’t automatically mean you have cancer, it does indicate there is a need for further evaluation. Other conditions can cause lumps in the breast includes cysts, benign tumors and certain noncancerous disorders.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common sign of breast cancer is a lump or thickening in one breast that can be felt. It may be painless, or it may be tender with some associated pain. Many cancerous lumps are firm, with irregular borders and develop in the upper portion of the breast near the armpit. In the early stages of cancer, there may not be other signs or symptoms.

Since even an experienced healthcare provider can’t always tell if a lump is benign or malignant, all lumps and changes to the breast should be examined and evaluated, with a full medical history, physical exam and imaging tests. If further studies are needed, a biopsy may be necessary. Diagnosing breast cancer is generally a step-by-step procedure that can take several days. Many women say the worst part is the waiting and the uncertainty of knowing whether or not they have cancer.

Is breast cancer hereditary and what are my risks for developing the disease?

A woman’s risk of breast cancer begins to increase close to age 50 as menopause approaches. But it’s important to note that cancer in general increases as a person ages. There is also evidence that genetics play a role in whether or not you will develop breast cancer.

However, there are some factors inherent in just being a female that put women at risk for breast cancer:

  • Women have more breast cells than men and so are at higher risk than men. These cells are also more exposed to female hormones that can promote growth of cancerous cells.
  • Family history is a strong link – about 15 to 20 percent of breast cancers occur in women with some family history on either side. The risks are higher if a mother, sister or daughter develops breast cancer; if multiple women on one side of the family are diagnosed; if there is a history of ovarian cancer and; if there is male breast cancer in the family.
  • Estrogen has been shown to play a key role in breast cancer development.
  • A woman’s menstrual history may affect the risks for breast cancer: those who began their periods before the age of 12 and didn’t experience menopause until after 55 may have a slighter higher risk of getting breast cancer.
  • Pregnancy (after age 30) can increase your risk, with some studies showing that breastfeeding can reduce the risk.
  • Only about 5 – 10 percent of all breast cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are tumor suppressors. Defects in the genes can result in breast cancer.
  • Other factors include: environment, diet, weight and exercise. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women by up to 50 percent. (Source: Mayo Clinic Breast Cancer Book, Good Books, 2012).

Things that don’t increase your risk, despite some common myths and misconceptions: having large breasts, breast implants, drinking coffee, deodorants and wearing underwire bras.

What are the Treatments Available for Breast Cancer?

Surgery remains the standard choice of treatment for diagnosed breast cancer say most physicians. There are two broad types of surgery, depending upon diagnosis, medical recommendations, family history and personal preference: breast-conserving which typically removes just the tumor but saves the breast, and mastectomy in which the entire breast is removed.

Within those two broad surgical choices are different types of surgical procedures that include:

chemotherapy can be treatment for breast cancer

  • Lumpectomy – removes only the breast lump (tumor) and a margin of surrounding tissue.
  • Partial mastectomy – tumor, breast tissue and chest muscle lining are removed; some lymph nodes may also be removed.
  • Total mastectomy – the entire breast is removed but not the underarm lymph nodes or underlying muscle.
  • Radical mastectomy – extensive surgery (no longer used as often) that removes the entire breast, lymph nodes and chest wall muscles.
  • Double mastectomy – sometimes used as a preventive measure for high-risk women.

In nearly all cases, reconstructive plastic surgery is available and performed. Radiation, chemo and other follow-up therapy may also be prescribed, depending upon the progression of the cancer and recommendations made by healthcare providers.

Personal choice is also involved: in one study half of women whom experts said were eligible for lumpectomy chose a mastectomy instead. In addition, some younger women are choosing double mastectomies as a preventive measure if they are at high risk of developing breast cancer. (Source: 10 Best Questions for Surviving Breast Cancer, D.Bonner, Ph. D., Fireside Books, 2008).

Some women also wonder if there are nonsurgical alternatives to breast cancer – a good question that should be thoroughly discussed with healthcare providers as a way of becoming an active player in the fight against breast cancer.

A survey by the National Cancer Institute has reported that up to 62 percent of American adult cancer patients (all types) use some alternative therapy to help them cope. For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute at www.cancer.gov or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at https://nccih.nih.gov/.

What are Some Measures I can take to Avoid Breast Cancer or Minimize the Disease?

Screening is the best way to catch the disease early

Most experts agree that screening is the best way to catch breast cancer in its early stages. It doesn’t prevent cancer but it can lead to quick detection and a better outcome. There is still some debate about when or whether to get screened for breast cancer, stemming from a study that showed more deaths from breast cancer occurred in younger women who didn’t get regular mammograms. Arguments arose about false positives and over-treatment. In addition, different surveys can lead to different answers, so the best advice is to consult with your healthcare provider about your individual situation and relevant risk factors. An annual mammogram for women over 40 is still a good guide. The CA 27.29 is a blood test, a tumor marker, specific for screening for breast cancer. Other ways to boost your chances of not getting breast cancer and improve your overall health:

  • Eat a high-fiber diet - Breast disease has been linked to low fiber intake and the inability to fully eliminate waste products (constipation) according to one study.
  • Eat more flax – which helps in reducing the effects of estrogen on the body.
  • Eat less fat – breast cancer is less common in countries where less fat and more soy-based foods are consumed. (Diet is only one factor, however, requiring more research). But for overall health, experts recommend replacing saturated fats with olive oil or monounsaturated fats to reduce the risk of heart disease – and possibly breast cancer as well.
  • Exercise more and include strength training – it reduces side effects from certain needed medications (especially joint and muscle pain) and can help in weight loss.
  • Reduce alcohol intake – more than two drinks a day have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer by up to 20 percent.

Does Breast Cancer Occur in Men?

The answer is yes, though it is uncommon. Only about one percent of all breast cancers occur in males but when it does, it is similar to breast cancer in women. Men with breast cancer tend to be older and may have the same BRCA gene mutation as women. Sometimes they present with a painless breast mass, nipple retraction, nipple discharge or bleeding but like women, they may have no signs or symptoms. Standard treatment may include a mastectomy and survival rates in men with breast cancer are similar to women. Risk factors for men include:

  • Family history, especially with hereditary gene mutation
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Infertility
  • Testicular abnormalities
  • Liver problems
  • Sex chromosome abnormalities

What’s Happening with the Latest Research on Breast Cancer?

According to the Mayo Clinic, two new areas of ongoing cancer research are genomics and proteomics:

  • Genomics – the study of the human genome, or all 25,000 genes typically found in a human being. Identifying and targeting the specific genes that can result in breast cancer will help with both diagnosis and treatment that can be directed at the particular, mutated gene.
  • Proteomics – the study of human proteins. Proteins are the active players that carry out a cell’s activities. Only a small number of the millions of different proteins have currently been identified. The goal: to understand and diagram the signaling pathways controlling cell growth and activity.

Research into a cure continues

In drug therapies, researchers are learning that some tumors are becoming resistant to current prescribed drugs. At present, Herceptin and Tykerb tackle about 30 percent of breast cancers containing a protein called HER2. Pfizer is looking at different forms of drugs that can reach multiple forms of the protein, making resistance to the drug less likely. (Source: Time, Jan 2014, Innovation + Tech)

There are numerous resources available on breast cancer, including those found at the Mayo Clinic. For clinical trials, visit https://www.mayo.edu/research/clinical-trials; for coping, visit the Cancer Hope Network; and for specific information on breast cancer go to www.breastcancer.org.

How to Test for Ovarian Cancer

The American Cancer Society has estimated that approximately 22,240 new instances of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in 2018 in the United States. Of those women, 14,070 are expected to die of the disease. The risk of developing ovarian cancer over a woman's lifetime is 1 in 79, and her risk of death from invasive ovarian cancer is 1 in 109.

Can Ovarian Cancer be Diagnosed in its Early Stages?

Only about 20 percent of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the early stages of the disease. This is because ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages. Many of the common symptoms can be mistaken for other illnesses or ailments and you may disregard them. About 80% of women are not diagnosed until a later stage, usually not until the cancer has spread.

It is vital that you familiarize yourself with the early symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially if you have a family history of the disease or a related cancer. Any cancer of the reproductive system, including the ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, or peritoneum (lining of the abdominal cavity), in your family could be a potential warning sign for you. A comprehensive cancer screening can allow for successful treatment.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer include:

  • Bloating or swelling of your abdomen
  • Pain in your abdomen or pelvis
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • The need to urinate more frequently or urgently
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Being tired or having low energy levels
  • Changes in your period
  • Pain right before or right after your period starts
  • Bleeding between menstrual cycles
  • Pain in your low back
  • Pain with sex

It is important to note that early symptoms of ovarian cancer can easily be attributed to some other condition. If you experience these symptoms and they continue for more than a couple of weeks, you should tell your doctor. A proper cancer screening allows for effective and preemptive care.

What are the Tests for Ovarian Cancer; How Effective are they?

Unlike other cancers, such as breast cancer, there are no truly, reliable screening tests for ovarian cancer. However, research into one or more screening methods is ongoing. The most commonly used preliminary tests to look for cancer of the ovaries are:

  • Pelvic exams
  • Transvaginal ultrasounds
  • CA-125 blood tests

reproductive system including ovariesDuring the pelvic exam, the doctor will insert a finger into your vagina while pressing down on your abdomen. The doctor is looking for an enlarged ovary or tenderness over the ovaries. This finding does not necessarily indicate cancer. Such findings can also appear when a woman has a non-cancerous, or benign, cyst on the ovary. Also, ovarian cancer in its early stages can be too small to feel using this method.

You should be aware that PAP smears look for cancer of the cervix and do not test for ovarian cancer. Therefore, paying attention to your body and having regular pelvic exams is extremely important.

Another related and important exam, which should be done on women who are 35 or older, is a rectovaginal exam. Here the doctor will insert a finger in the rectum and the vagina at the same time, again to feel for unusual swelling or tenderness.

For the transvaginal ultrasound, a wand is placed inside the vagina to get close to the ovaries and uterus. Sound waves are then emitted from the wand into the woman's body. These sound waves then bounce back from organs, such as the ovaries, to produce a picture. In this way, the doctor can "see" the ovary and any mass or cyst that may be within or attached to it. This test will not be able to tell your doctor if any mass seen is indeed, cancerous.

The CA-125 blood test is used to detect the level of the protein, CA-125, which is referred to as a "tumor marker." This test can sometimes be helpful in identifying ovarian cancer because cancer cells in the ovary release this protein into the body. However, there are other conditions, not related to ovarian cancer which can cause higher levels of CA-125 in your body. Because of this, women who are not at an increased risk for ovarian cancer or who are not showing symptoms of ovarian cancer often do not get this test.

What other Tests are Available to Detect or Diagnose Ovarian Cancer?

Some additional tests that may be done are CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans, Paracentesis and Biopsies.

CT scans are x-rays that effectively take a picture of a cross-wise slice of your body. Many such image slices are taken at one time. Sometimes you may be given a contrast medium, which is a dye to help visualize details in the pictures. Unfortunately, even with advances in CT scanning, it is hard to see a tumor or other abnormality that is less than 5 millimeters (1/5th of an inch) in size. Larger tumors and enlarged lymph nodes can be visualized using the CT scanner. It is often used to determine if cancer has spread to other organs as well.

MRI scans use a magnetic field and radio waves to produce the imaging. You may also be given a contrast medium for this test. This test can take pictures of slices of your body both cross-wise and length-wise. While not often used to look for ovarian cancer in the first instance, they can help determine the size of the tumor.

PET scans use a radioactive sugar which is injected into your body. Since this sugar is attracted to cells that use the most energy, and cancer cells use a lot of energy, they take in more of the radioactive sugar than the surrounding cells. This helps to identify any cancerous cells. The PET scan is often used with a CT. This scan has been helpful in identifying ovarian cancer that has already spread.

Paracentesis is a procedure where fluid from your abdominal cavity is drawn out with a needle and syringe and inspected under a microscope for cancerous cells. This procedure is done if you have what is called "ascites" (a build-up of fluid inside your abdomen). This is a form of biopsy (see below).

A Biopsy is the only procedure that can confirm a diagnosis of cancer. If cancer is suspected, a sample of tissue from your ovary is taken to examine under the microscope to see if it contains cancer cells. Usually, with ovarian cancer, the biopsy occurs when the tumor, or even the entire ovary, is removed.

What happens if any of These Tests are Positive or Indicate Possible Ovarian Cancer?

It is recommended that you should see a gynecologist, specifically a gynecologic oncologist immediately. The gynecologic oncologist is a gynecologist who is also a cancer specialist.

Remember, although it may sometimes be difficult to find in its early stages, you can do so. You must know the symptoms of ovarian cancer and listen to your body. Your awareness is the first test against this disease.

Early Warning Signs Of Cancer And Risk Factors

Cancer patient with nurse

It may surprise you, but cancer cells lie dormant in all of us. That’s because the body is a living organism that does not produce every single cell totally perfect. When these defective cells begin to multiple uncontrollably, a tumor forms.

About one in four people die of cancer but that means three-fourths of the population will not. So while cancer is a major disease, and one that should never be taken lightly, it doesn’t strike everyone, even those who may be at risk. In addition, many cancers are survivable today, with a growing number of people in remission and even cancer-free.

What causes cancer and its mortality rate and how can the average person reduce their risk? The causes are many – genetics contribute up to 15 percent of the mortality rate for cancer – but other cancer causes are suspect, from environmental influences and chemical exposure to our lifestyle. For example, in the Western hemisphere, breast, colon and prostate cancer are more frequent than in Asia. Could that have something to do with our Western way of life?

Do you know any of the warning signs? One 2013 international report found that more than a quarter of all individuals surveyed couldn’t name even one symptom of lung cancer. Despite the fact that many cancers can be cured if caught early, we too often fail to take precautions, ignore symptoms or wait too long to seek treatment – all of which can be deadly.

Common Questions About Cancer And Cancer Risk Factors

What are some of the more common myths about getting cancer?

Even in today’s well-connected world, untruths and misinformation are still common, especially when it comes to disease. Among the misconceptions about cancer:

  • Nearly half of all people believe “almost everything” causes cancer.
    • FACT: In truth, cancer causes are complex (like cancer itself) with more research needed. But we do know that smoking causes lung cancer, environmental hazards can cause cell mutations, genetics play a role in certain cancers and cancers are related to inflammatory changes in the body.
  • Nearly one-third of individuals say “there isn’t much you can do to lower your chances of getting cancer.”
    • FACT: Education and research say otherwise. Certain cancers can be avoided through better health choices and lifestyle changes, including avoidance of tobacco, better diet and nutrition and regular cancer screenings and checkups.
  • Getting cancer is an automatic death sentence.
    • FACT: While some types of aggressive cancers are still deadly, many others, if caught early, can be cured.
  • A positive attitude is all you need to beat cancer.
    • FACT: An upbeat attitude can improve the quality of your treatment and your life, but there’s no scientific proof that it cures cancer.
  • Cancer is contagious.
    • FACT: No one can “catch” cancer from another person, even when a virus is the root cause.National Cancer Institute publication

What are the general warning signs of cancer?

While any persistent symptom warrants medical attention, watch for these signs and symptoms that could indicate a serious disease, including a malignancy:

  • Unexplained weight loss with sudden loss of appetite that continues despite good nutrition.
  • Persistent low-grade fever.
  • Fatigue that doesn’t go away with rest.
  • Skin changes including sores that won’t heal.
  • Chronic hoarseness or a cough; particularly with trouble swallowing.
  • Unusual bleeding.
  • Unexplained pain.
  • White patches in the mouth.
  • A lump or thickened area that can be felt through the skin.

What are some known risk factors?

Research can’t explain why one person develops cancer and another doesn’t. Nor do we know that having one or more risk factors will result in cancer. But we do know some people are at higher risk due to the following:

  • Tobacco use – including snuff and chewing tobacco. Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop cancer of the lung and other types of cancer.
  • Age – our risks for developing cancer increase as we get older. Most cancers occur after the age of 65.
  • Exposure to radiation, certain chemicals and other toxic substances – ionizing radiation from x-rays, radon gas and other sources can cause cell damage. Exposure to asbestos, benzene, benzidine, nickel and other chemicals in the workplace are also known carcinogens.
  • Some viruses and bacteria – Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a cause of cervical cancer and increases the risk for other types of cancer. HIV causes AIDS and pylori bacteria can cause stomach ulcers and cancer in the stomach lining.
  • Hormones – certain types can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  • A family history of cancer – since cancers develop due to mutations in genes, certain cancers and risk factors can be passed from parent to child. Melanoma and breast cancers, for example, occur more often in families with similar gene mutations.
  • Overexposure to sunlight – ultraviolet radiation from the sun, sunlamps and tanning booths causes early aging of the skin and susceptibility to skin cancer.
  • Obesity with poor diet and lack of physical activity – studies suggest that people with a diet high in fat content have an increased risk of colon, uterus and prostate cancer. Lack of physical exercise can also increase the risks.

What cancer screenings are available and what should I consider if I have risk factors?

An image of normal human skin with stratified layers

Routine screening is linked to a decrease in deaths from cervical, breast, colon and skin cancer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 90 percent of colon cancer patients survive five or more years, or can be cured, when colon cancer is caught early through screenings. It is recommended that adults 50 and older get a colonoscopy or other test, especially if there is a family history of colon cancer, polyps or other bowel diseases. Check with your healthcare provider on test types and timing.

Other recommended screenings:

  • Prostate - with blood testing for elevated PSA
  • Ovarian cancer – there is limited screening capability for this type of cancer but a CA-125 blood test (CA-125 is a protein shed into the blood from cancer cells) can help indicate whether there is cancer present as part of a diagnostic workup.
  • Cervix and uterine – have an annual Pap test
  • Breast cancer – the American Cancer Society recommends an annual mammogram for women beginning at age 40. An MRI may be recommended if there is a strong family history of breast cancer.
  • Lung cancer – an annual X-ray is suggested, especially if you are a smoker.A melanoma on a patient with skin cancer
  • Skin cancer – pay close attention to changes on your skin and contact your health provider if you see: moles that grow or change in appearance, spots that bleed, peel or itch and ulcers or sores that won’t heal.

Once I know my risks, what are the best ways to reduce my chances of getting cancer?

This woman is properly dressed for working in sunlight, with sunscreen, long-sleeved shirt, hat and gloves. She has reduced her risk for skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the U.S.

Taking preventive measures are the best way to reduce cancer risks in all its forms. Diet and lifestyle were studied in a 2011 Cancer Prevention study using more than 111,000 nonsmoking individuals and the findings were impressive: after 14 years, those who complied with maintaining a healthy body weight, eating foods that emphasized fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol and exercising regularly had a 42 lower risk for death from all causes (including cancer) than those who didn’t comply. Cancer deaths were 30 percent lower in men and 24 percent lower in women. (Source: Five-to-Thrive: your cutting edge cancer prevention plan, by Dr. L. Alschuler and K. Gazella, Active Interest Media, Inc. 2011).

Among the suggested guidelines:

  • Get regular screenings and check-ups based upon your family history and healthcare provider recommendations.
  • Avoid skin contact or breathing in products that contain industrial chemicals whenever possible. This includes skincare products that contain estrogen by-products.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Protect your skin from over-exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays but do get a little sunlight each day, which creates Vitamin D.
  • If possible, filter your tap water to avoid harmful chemicals.
  • Spend at least thirty minutes per day in physical activity 4-5 times a week. Researchers have found that physical activity can not only help prevent some cancers, it reduces common side effects from some treatments.
  • Reduce stress (which can inhibit immune cells and lead to inflammatory changes) through meditation, yoga, therapy, or other forms of stress-reduction that work best for you.
  • Balance your diet by reducing sugars, fats and processed foods. Eat more fish, vegetables and whole grains.

Not using tobacco is the most preventable way to reduce cause of death from cancer. Each year, about 180,000 Americans die from cancer related to tobacco use. (Source: National Cancer Institute)

What are “healing foods” for a cancer patient?

In general, most people should eat a diet that is rich in color (green, yellow and red vegetables and fruit), limit portions, emphasize plant and seafood forms of fat, reduce refined sugars, flour and processed foods and limit portions (try a smaller plate or eating only 75 percent of what’s on your plate).

Specifically, the following foods are considered “healing foods” for cancer patients which means they provide essential nutrients or anti-inflammatory benefits:

  • Salmon is high in good fatsOatmeal
  • Vegetables, raw and cooked, especially those that are bright colored (examples are cabbages, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, beets and tomatoes).
  • Whole wheat and other grains
  • Salmon and other fish high in omega-3 content
  • Fresh fruits, especially blueberries, strawberries and cranberries)
  • Soy-based products
  • Organic dairy products including yogurt
  • Dark chocolate (with at least 70 percent cocoa)
  • Nuts
  • Green tea
  • Some herbs and spices, including ginger, turmeric and curry
  • Garlic, onions, leeks, shallots and chives
  • Mushrooms
  • Red wine (in moderation)

Is it possible to thrive, as well as survive, when you have cancer?

Thriving with cancer is possible

The answer is yes, according to cancer patients who not only survived their disease, but rebounded. The author of Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life (Viking, 2008) is a physician and cancer survivor who says in his book that his cancer was “quite civilized,” due to his transformation to a better diet and major lifestyle changes. While he has no guarantees the cancer won’t return, he also has no regrets about his proactive decision to enhance his quality of life.

Breast cancer survivor Dr. Lise Alschuler and ovarian cancer survivor Karolyn Gazelle, authors of Five to Thrive (Active Interest Media, 2011), both say that creating the best internal environment, through healthy physical, emotional and spiritual changes, can move you away from your disease and back toward wellness.

Cancer Causes: Know Your Personal Risk Factors to Prevent Cancer

Knowing what causes cancer is key to preventing it. Cancer is defined as abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells. Normal cells grow and divide for a set period, then stop, eventually dying off to be replaced by new ones. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, continue to grow and divide indefinitely, forming tissue masses called tumors. As tumors grow, they can damage or kill healthy cells around them, affecting the function of vital organs, such as the brain, kidneys or liver, or major systems, such as the circulatory, nervous or digestive systems.Smoking Causes Cancer

The exact causes of that uncontrolled cell growth differ among the more than 100 known forms of cancer. While some aren't controllable, such as genetics or age, many other risk factors can be minimized or avoided, lowering your risk of developing cancer. Routine screening tests for common forms of the disease are also important to cancer prevention, helping to ensure that cancer is caught in its early stages, when treatments are most effective.

Cancer Prevention: Controllable Risk Factors

Medical science still has a lot to learn about what causes cancer, but over the past few decades, many factors that can contribute to its development have been identified. Many cancers have been linked to specific behaviors or environmental factors that can be controlled by individuals throughout their lives. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, more than half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices. Steps that you can take to help prevent cancer include:

  • Avoid Tobacco – Tobacco use, including smoking or use of chewing tobacco, has been closely linked to lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the United States, and the most preventable one. Tobacco use is also linked to a long list of other cancers, including cancers of the mouth, lips, throat, stomach, pancreas, kidney, bladder and colon, as well as leukemia and reproductive system cancers. Of course, avoiding tobacco entirely is the best means of preventing cancer, but even if you've been smoking or chewing tobacco for years, quitting can significantly reduce cancer risk.Good Diet and Exercise can prevent Cancer
  • Limit Alcohol Use – The American Cancer Society recommends that alcohol should be limited to no more than two drinks a day for men and one daily for women to reduce cancer risk. Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol has been linked to cancers that include cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, colon, breast and pancreas.
  • Eat Well and Stay Active – Research has shown that poor diets and sedentary lifestyles increase cancer risk, contributing to approximately one third of cancer deaths every year. These factors also contribute to overweight and obesity, which is another important risk factor for cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends a diet focused on plant-based foods and at least 30 minutes per day of physical activity to reduce cancer risk, actions that also aid in controlling body weight.
  • Protect Against UV Exposure – Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., accounting for nearly half of cancers annually. Protecting your skin against UV exposure greatly reduces skin cancer risk, so use sunscreen of at least 30 SPF daily, avoid sun exposure between the hours 10 am and 4 pm when UV rays are most intense, stay in the shade as much as possible, and wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses.
  • Limit Your Exposure to Radiation – Repeated exposure to certain forms of radiation are known to increase cancer risk. The average person can reduce risk by observing safety precautions carefully in high-risk jobs, limiting use of diagnostic imaging and having their homes tested for radon gas, a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas that can accumulate in homes and commercial buildings.

Cancer Screening: Essential for Cancer Prevention

Superficial spreading malignant melanoma or skin cancer

Many common forms of cancer can be detected at their earliest, most treatable stages through routine cancer screening tests. The American Cancer Society recommends routine screening for cancers of the prostate, breast, colon, cervix, uterus and in individuals with known risk factors, the lung. Blood tests can be used to detect early signs of many of these cancers, as can screening procedures, such as mammograms, colonoscopy or endoscopy exams and pap smears, among others. Screening recommendations vary from one individual to another according to age and level of risk, among other factors, so speak to your doctor about which screening tests you should have and how often they should be done.

Someone you Love has Cancer: What to Do – What to Say

Just Listening is ComfortingA cancer diagnosis is a devastating event in the life for the person who receives it as well as for their family and friends. Of course, if someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer, you'll want to offer them comfort and support as they come to terms with the diagnosis and proceed with treatment. However, it can be very difficult to find the right words to say or the best ways to help in these very trying situations. Here, we've put together some tips that can help you comfort someone with cancer.

Don't speak, just listen – Most of us simply do not know what to say to comfort someone with cancer, and many of us are very afraid of saying exactly the wrong thing. Chances are, if you're shocked by the news and aren't quite sure how to handle it, you may just do that, so just be honest with your friend or loved one. Let them know that you have no words that can make things better, but make it clear that you are ready, willing and able to listen. Often, just listening quietly as your friend expresses facts, feelings and fears about the situation is the most valuable form of comfort and support you can offer.

Avoid empty platitudes and advice – Of course, you'll want to empathize with your friend or loved one and offer any help you can. However, you should avoid the empty platitudes that most of us are guilty of when we're feeling awkward and helpless, such as “I know how you feel” or “You'll be fine, no cancer can keep you down.” While these are well-meaning attempts at comfort, they can sound, to a person dealing with the emotional distress of cancer, as if you're trivializing their situation. Additionally, offering a stream of advice about how your sister's husband's cousin got through cancer isn't helpful either, since everyone is different. This can be very annoying and upsetting to cancer sufferers.

Keep normal routines – Don't let your discomfort about their situation keep you away from your friend or family member with cancer. Often, cancer sufferers feel very isolated as people around them, feeling ill-equipped to face the situation, simply avoid doing so by fading out of their lives. Keep up your normal routines, whether that is playing cards once a week, going shopping on weekends or seeing a movie once a month – and don't let all of your time together be about cancer. Tell funny stories, share mutual memories or gossip about the neighbors -- whatever it takes to give your friend a break from the everyday reality of cancer.

Having Cancer can be LonelyMake specific offers of help – Don't present your friend or family member with the standard “Please let me know if I can do anything to help” line. As well-meaning as it is, chances are you won't get much response, since people hate to ask for favors – especially when they're feeling upset and vulnerable. Make specific offers. Call when you're going to the grocery store and ask if you can get them anything. Offer to come over and cook a great lunch. Ask if you can keep them company at that next medical appointment or chemotherapy session. Let them know you're thinking of them and are truly interested in doing whatever it takes to help. Once you've made that clear, your friend or family member may just feel comfortable enough to reach out and tell you what they really need.

As you do your best to comfort someone with cancer, it is important to keep in mind that cancer is an ongoing experience. Friends and family tend to rally around a person directly after a diagnosis, going into classic crisis mode. However, after a while, that steady flow of support tends to wane as those well-meaning people get caught up in the details of day-to-day life. That's why many cancer sufferers say that living with cancer is a lonely experience. Of course, you will need to get over the shock of discovering your loved one has cancer and get on with your life, but don't forget that your friend or family member will be living with cancer every single day and will need your help and support for some time to come.

Some of the media in this article come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #13406.