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Cancer Deaths Down; More Progress Still Needed

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Great news: the death rate from cancer is falling. Over the past 20 years, cancer deaths have decreased dramatically and steadily. After peaking in 1991, deaths from cancer have fallen 20%. That’s well over a million deaths prevented over 20 years!

The American Cancer Society’s research shows progress – for example, middle-aged black men are the group with the largest decline in cancer deaths – but also the need for continued research and improvements in care, as cancer deaths are still more common in black men than in white men. Experts estimate that there will be over 1.5 million new cases of cancer in the US in 2014, about 586,000 of which will result in death.

The divide in cancer cases and deaths between races and ethnicities is starkly evident when one considers that even though the rate of deaths has been effectively cut by half in middle-aged black men, their deaths from cancer are still significantly more common than those of white men. The lowest rate of cancer deaths is seen in Asian Americans. Even more deaths could be prevented if the knowledge we now have about fighting cancer were applied across all groups of people – including the poorest subset of the population.

Lung cancer continues to top the list of fatal cancers, along with breast, colon, and prostate cancers. These four cancers alone are responsible for almost half of all cancer deaths in the US, with lung cancer causing more than a quarter of cancer deaths. Researchers estimate that this year, these four cancers will be the most common cancers diagnosed.

Still, the rates of not only deaths but new cases of cancer are also falling. One reason is that more people are having regular colonoscopies, during which pre-cancerous polyps can be removed and full-blown cancer avoided. Lung cancer occurrence has also decreased, thanks in large part to declining numbers of smokers.

Doing Your Part

The number of new cancer cases as well as the number of deaths from cancer can be further reduced by individuals taking a proactive approach to preventing cancer – or catching it early. This is one reason why your annual appointment with your gynecologist is so important; cervical and other cancers can be detected and treated in the early stages, before metastasis complicates your prognosis. Screening for other types of cancers, such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer, is also highly effective at detecting cancer early on. Most cancers are highly treatable when caught early. Free and low-cost cancer screenings are available in many states.

You can further reduce your cancer risk by getting an HPV vaccine and/or a hepatitis B vaccine; ask your doctor if these are right for you. Besides getting regular preventive medical care, avoiding tobacco, limiting sun exposure and avoiding tanning beds, keeping alcohol use to a minimum, getting plenty of exercise, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables can all go a long way toward helping your prevent – and fight – cancer.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Obesity A Major Cause of Death for Women that Survive Cancer

Monday, July 1st, 2013

A diagnosis of cancer can put a person’s entire life on hold. Fortunately, treatments for cancer, and especially for women’s cancers, are becoming increasingly better at helping women prolong their lives and even enter into remission. This is wonderful news for both doctors and patients that have to deal with this horrible and tragic disease. However, as the rate of women who survive cancer increases, alarming statistics about what can happen after surviving this disease are coming to light.

It has been suggested that one of the main killers for women that survive cancer is obesity. Hormonal changes in women who have received oophorectomies can severely impact their ability to maintain a healthy weight, and in some cases can cause women who have never had weight problems to face weight gain. Additionally, many medicines such as steroids that are used to treat cancer can cause weight gain. This does not even begin to take into account the many emotional and mood changes faced by women who have survived cancer, which can also be a major contributor to weight gain.

So what can a doctor such as myself do about it? How can those who have survived cancer move on with their lives and continue to preserve their health? One study suggests that it is extremely important for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and those who have entered remission to discuss the problem of obesity and how it can factor into a woman’s health after she has begun to recover from such a devastating disease. It is also important for women who have survived cancer to seek the support of other survivors that may be able to help them understand what they face after remission and recovery.

Discussing the other factor surrounding a diagnosis of cancer can be just as important as discussing the disease itself. Whether an individual is a doctor, a patient, or even a close friend or family member of the person who is recovering, the “what comes next” dialogue is an essential part of preparing for a woman’s long-term health prospects. Women should not be surviving cancer only to face further health complications, especially if steps can be taken early on to prevent these issues. Whether it is due to hormonal fluctuations, medication, or an issue such as depression, weight gain can be prevented. The entire community needs to work together to put an end to this growing problem.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Do Breast Implants Increase Cancer Risks?

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Breast implants are one of the most common cosmetic procedures that women undergo, no matter what their age, race, or even social status. There have been a lot of concerns about cosmetic breast surgery over the years, from how they affect breastfeeding to the potential of cosmetic breast implants to obscure breast material on mammograms that could potentially prevent doctors from finding masses. Many doctors have performed studies to assess these risks and determine the outcomes of breast cancer among women who have breast implants.

There does seem to be an elevated risk of mortality in breast cancer among women who have cosmetic breast implants, according to one study.  Although the findings of the study should be viewed with caution,  it is difficult to determine exactly why there is a higher mortality, and whether breast implants are a direct cause of these higher rates.  One theory for the later detection of breast cancer and late stage tumors was that both silicone and saline implants create radio-opaque shadows on mammograms, which impair the visualization of breast tissue.  There is no evidence yet for women who are interested in receiving breast implants that they should forego the procedure. However, women who have or want breast implants will want to be cautious about speaking with their doctor regularly and scheduling mammograms at regular intervals—just as all women should do.

Part of any health care plan is being aware of what your limitations are, and figuring out ways to make up for those limitations. Women who have breast implants should be vigilant in receiving mammograms and breast sonograms after the age of 40.  For women with breast implants under the age of 40, breast self-examination is still recommended, even though a Canadian Task Force has fair evidence that breast self-examination has no benefit in women between 40 and 69  leading to more anxiety and more biopsies.  Never think, however, that there are no care options available for you, no matter what your situation is. The most important step in receiving the optimal care is taking charge of your own health.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Better Knowledge of Symptoms Leads Gynecological Cancer Survivors to Seek Treatment

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Though your doctor can provide much in the way of education about your health, the burden of determining whether or not a symptom is in need of treatment or diagnosis can fall into the hands of the patient. However, this can be a catch-22—self-diagnosis via Internet message boards and medical sites can be just as detrimental to a woman’s health as ignoring her symptoms completely, especially if she makes her own decisions about her care or treatment without consulting with her doctor. This leads to a problem that many doctors are finding it difficult to solve.

We want patients to be informed about their bodies and their health; however, we don’t want our patients to think that self-diagnosis is the way to go when it comes to caring for their bodies long-term. It is important to consider how women use message boards and medical websites to supplement their own understanding about their health. One study done on women in Japan showed that gynecological cancer survivors were more likely to seek treatment after searching online and connecting with others who had those same symptoms.

This proves that the Internet can be a great tool for assessing whether or not a symptom is normal—after all, it can be easy to dismiss something as natural without taking into account that it very well may not be. What seems to be a minor issue can easily be a symptom of something much greater. When women use the technology at their disposal to educate themselves about their health and use that education to open a dialogue with their doctor about whether or not they are in need of diagnostics or treatment, they are taking a proactive step toward bettering their health. Every woman should be aware of the importance of educating themselves about their bodies—but it is just as important that women realize self-diagnosis can be dangerous. Part of educating yourself is understanding that you are learning to communicate with your doctor, and aren’t trying to play “doctor” yourself.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Preserving Fertility for Cancer Survivors

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for a woman of any age, but for a young woman who is hoping to eventually start a family, there can be a host of other problems associated with this disease. No matter what type of cancer a woman faces, it can have severely damaging effects on her reproductive health. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can cause major problems with a woman’s eggs, and can even make them not viable for future reproduction. Women who suffer from ovarian and cervical cancers may even be forced to undergo a full or partial hysterectomy.

For many young women, the second question they ask after determining their prognosis is what effect their cancer will have on their future ability to start a family. Fortunately, advances in science over the past few decades have made it entirely possible for a woman to preserve her fertility after a cancer diagnosis. There are many options available for women who want to start a family after they have recovered from their illness. However, it is important to note that many of these options must be pursued early on in a cancer diagnosis—especially if the woman is choosing to freeze her eggs for future in vitro fertilization use.

Many women may see egg freezing as their only choice, and will not want to pursue this avenue when undergoing cancer treatment—this may leave them feeling as if they might never have the chance to start a family. This study shows that most women believe egg and embryo banking is their only option. This is most certainly not the case. Women who are concerned about their potential for reproduction should talk with their doctors and learn all the options before they give it up for a lost cause. There are many mothers out there who have had their children after surviving this horrible disease. I invite people to read my book, “Inside Information For Women”, for more information on the effects of breast and other cancers on the female body.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Scalp-Cooling Cap Freezes Chemo Hair Loss

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Breast cancer, or any kind of cancer for that matter, is scary and stressful, and it doesn’t help that the treatment can cause hair loss.  Then, not only must you brave the disease, but also the beacon that your bald head becomes, proclaiming to everyone that you have cancer.  Recent experiments though show that a hat could stop or slow hair loss due to chemotherapy.

When you go through chemotherapy, its intent is to attack the rapidly dividing cancer cells.  Unfortunately, the drugs can’t always tell which rapidly-dividing cells are harmless.  Because your hair follicles divide quickly too, they often get attacked by the drugs.  These effects vary depending on the type of chemotherapy drugs you’re using, the regimen you’re on, and of course, the rate at which your hair follicle cells divide.  That’s why some people do not experience hair loss, while others experience it temporarily or even permanently.  Researchers at Laval University in Quebec sought a way to prevent or slow hair loss during chemotherapy.  They found, that by using a scalp-cooling cap, they could constrict the blood vessels around the follicles, preventing some of the chemotherapy drugs from giving their full dose to those areas.  When tested on a small, preliminary group, they found that the cap did show promise.  The cap was used for 20 minutes before the treatment and for an hour or more after the treatment.  Overall, their results showed 69% of women who tried it saw hair loss at the “not at all,” “a little,” or “moderate” levels.

If further trials test the cap and find it successful, it may be another option to add to your chemo treatment down the road.  That could mean a lot longer stays at the clinic, but it could also make for a slightly less stressful road to recovery in the end.  A scalp-cooling cap that freezes chemo hair loss in its tracks could be one more thing breast cancer survivors have to be thankful for.


– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Exercise Beats Cancer

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

With more than 40% of Americans diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, it’s highly likely that you or someone you know has experienced cancer.  For this reason, we have put a lot of effort into finding cures and treatments for this devastating disease, and now, we are finally seeing some glimmer of hope in the statistics, especially in terms of prevention.  It seems that an active lifestyle, a healthy weight, and a smart diet can do a lot to reduce the risk of cancer.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1/3 of cancers can actually be prevented if Americans were to commit to being physically active every day for at least 30 minutes, if they were to maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives, and if their diet would include mostly plant foods, limited red meat, and as little processed meat as possible.  If that’s not enough motivation to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle, I don’t know what is!  Unfortunately, the American diet is packed with processed meats and other unhealthy foods and our culture is getting less active by the generation.  Hopefully, these statistics are enough to create a paradigm shift and force Americans to look at the long-term effects of their choices.

For those of us in our middle-aged years already, much of the damage has already been done, but that doesn’t mean we can’t turn it around.  In fact, a recent study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute revealed that physical activity was linked to lower rates of breast and colon cancer deaths.  They found that cancer survivors, particularly breast cancer survivors, enjoyed longer lives when they exercised regularly, as compared to those who did not.  Exercise was also found to prevent reoccurring cancers. They believe the results stem from the way regular exercise effects insulin levels, inflammation, and immunity, but more studies are planned to better understand these recent results.

Between our American lifestyle, family histories, and the sheer prevalence of the disease, our risk factors for cancer only seem to be going up.  Now that we know that simply being healthy is just one way to reduce our risk though, maybe we can finally commit to getting out there and getting active.  How many more reasons do we need to take care of ourselves.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.