Just about everyone has some personal experience with cancer — whether through a friend or family member, or through their own battle with the disease. The good news is that in recent years, medical science has brought many new advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, and new options for patients. It is important to know how to recognize cancer's symptoms, because earlier detection means better outcomes. Symptoms of cancer can mimic those of other diseases. Listen to your body and talk to your doctor if you notice anything out of the ordinary. The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone over age 20 add cancer screening to their regular examinations (tips for early diagnosis can be found on the ACS website — link below).
It is also important to know that all cancers are not alike. For example, we now know that "breast cancer" is not one disease but several different ones; in all, the cancer cells begin growing in the breast, but the cancer cells themselves are different types or may grow in different ways. The same is true for cancers of the colon, lung, blood, etc. Differences in cancers call for different strategies to fight the illness. Traditional treatments for cancer include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or some combination of these (often with medicines to help with the side effects of treatment). In recent years, scientists have created new kinds of medicines that fight cancers by targeting the genetic or biologic traits ("biomarkers") of different types of cancer cells. You may have heard this called "personalized medicine." To find out if a "targeted" or "personalized" therapy is available for a particular cancer, the doctor must take out a small piece of the tumor (a biopsy) and test that sample.
If you or someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer, be sure to ask your doctor whether a tumor sample should be taken and tested to see whether a targeted drug may be available to help fight the disease. Even if a precision medicine is given, other treatments such as chemotherapy may also be part of the course of treatment at some stage. The more you know about cancer, the better position you will be in when you or a loved one seeks cancer treatment. For more information, watch the clip of me and Dr. Travis Stork on The Doctors or learn more about cancer from additional sources — links to both are to the right.