Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012 alone, World Health Organization (WHO) says.
In America, the disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissue, kills more than half a million people a year, making cancer the second leading cause of death in the country, exceeded only by heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 1,600 people a day died of cancer in the U.S. in 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available.
Different types of cancer have different mortality rates – breast cancer is highly treatable because it can be detected very early whereas pancreatic cancer grows very rapidly and often manifests no symptoms. A combination of factors contributes to not detecting the disease in time, Dr. Nita Lee from the University of Chicago Medicine says.
Some forms of cancer cannot be screened for; some grow for long before they cause pain, others very rapidly; people don’t go for annual checkups because they are scared of the potential results or don’t have insurance; false negatives; and non-specific warning signs.
People exhibit symptoms that could be anything and they go to their primary care doctor who may order imaging or blood tests. Then he or she sends the patient to a specialist. By the time a biopsy is done to confirm, the cancer can be too large, Dr. Solomon Graf, a hematology/oncology specialist for UW Medicine and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, says.
Whether non-definitive symptoms indicate cancer depends on the patient’s age, medical and family history, and health habits, Graf adds. Routine screening has been proven to be effective in preventing the disease.
Cancer has many vague symptoms that people attribute to stress or lack of sleep. Their persistence and progressiveness is key, Dr. George Sledge, chief of the Division of Oncology at Stanford, says. If the discomfort wasn’t there before and it continues for weeks, a visit to the doctor must follow.
The biggest risk factor of developing cancer is obesity, Dr. Lee says. “It has even overcome smoking.” A large percent of breast and ovarian cancer, especially, is associated with obesity, she adds.
A lot of research is being done in tumor DNA. “When cancer dies, it dumps DNA in the blood and can be measured for mutations,” he adds. The hope is that the emerging technology will allow doctors to do a better job at detecting cancer early. Until then, reading vague symptoms is crucial.