Understanding Cancer -- Diagnosis and Treatment

How Is Cancer Diagnosed?

The earlier cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of its being cured. Some types of cancer -- such as those of the skin, breast, mouth, testicles, prostate, and rectum -- may be detected by routine self-exam or other screening measures before the symptoms become serious. Most cases of cancer are detected and diagnosed after a tumor can be felt or when other symptoms develop. In a few cases, cancer is diagnosed incidentally as a result of evaluating or treating other medical conditions.

Cancer diagnosis begins with a thorough physical exam and a complete medical history. Laboratory studies of blood, urine, and stool can detect abnormalities that may indicate cancer. When a tumor is suspected, imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound, and fiber-optic endoscopy examinations help doctors determine the cancer's location and size. To confirm the diagnosis of most cancers , a biopsy needs to be performed in which a tissue sample is removed from the suspected tumor and studied under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

If the diagnosis is positive (cancer is present), other tests are performed to provide specific information about the cancer. This essential follow-up phase of diagnosis is called staging. The most important thing doctors need to know is whether cancer has spread from one area of the body to another. If the initial diagnosis is negative for cancer and symptoms persist, further tests may be needed. If the biopsy is positive for cancer, be sure to seek a confirming opinion by a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment before any treatment is started.

What Are the Treatments for Cancer?

Depending on the type and stage of cancer, treatments to eradicate the tumor or slow its growth may include some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or immunotherapy.

Cancer Support

Supportive care from nurses and other professionals should accompany cancer treatment. The goal is to relieve pain and other symptoms, maintain general health, improve quality of life, and provide emotional, psychological, and logistical support to patients and their families. Similar supportive treatment is available to rehabilitate patients after curative treatment. Supportive therapy such as hospice care for cancer patients nearing the end of their lives provides relief from pain and other irreversible symptoms. Most mainstream care is geared toward providing supportive treatment through the broad resources of a cancer treatment center. Complementary cancer therapies, which are generally provided outside a hospital, can also provide supportive care.

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Exercise and Cancer

Exercise can help control fatigue, muscle tension, and anxiety in those with cancer. Patients tend to feel better if they do exercises such as walking or swimming. Exercise has also been shown to improve the outcomes associated with cancer treatment.

Mind/Body Medicine for Cancer

Some mind/body therapies improve quality of life for cancer patients through behavior modification; others encourage expression of emotions. Behavior therapies such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnotherapy, and biofeedback are used to alleviate pain, nausea, vomiting, and the anxiety that may occur in anticipation of, or after, cancer treatment. Individual or group counseling allows patients to confront problems and emotions caused by cancer and receive support from fellow patients in a group setting. Patients who pursue these types of therapies tend to feel less lonely, less anxious about the future, and more optimistic about recovery.

Nutrition, Diet, and Cancer

Scientific evidence suggests that nutrition may play a role in cancer prevention. Observational studies have shown that cancer is more common in some people with certain dietary habits -- such as colorectal cancer in people who have diets rich in meat products. So far, data has not supported the use of any vitamins or supplements to decrease the risk of cancer. In fact, studies show some supplements may increase cancer risk, such as lung cancer risk in smokers taking beta carotene and prostate cancer risk in men taking high doses of vitamin E.

No diet has been shown to slow, reverse, or cure cancer.

Also, experts don't recommend stopping standard treatment in place of complementary medicine, but many therapies can help people with cancer feel better.

Acupuncture and Acupressure

Acupuncture and acupressure are examples of "complementary" medicine for cancer. While neither claims to cure the disease, some evidence shows that they help reduce symptoms and side effects of the illness and its treatment.

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Herbs to Fight Cancer

Numerous herbal remedies profess to fight cancer and its related symptoms; unfortunately, little solid evidence exists to prove their effectiveness. A few herbs may help with specific complaints: Ginger tea and peppermint tea or lozenges may ameliorate nausea, valerian root can help with anxiety and stress, capsicum cream might relieve muscle aches.

The FDA does regulate dietary supplements; however, it treats them like foods rather than medications. Unlike drug manufacturers, the makers of supplements don’t have to show their products are safe or effective before selling them on the market. Talk to your doctor or expert on herbal remedies and research carefully because some of these herbs may affect your other methods of treatment.

Homeopathy and Cancer

Homeopathic preparations may ease the nausea, fatigue, and anxiety associated with cancer and its treatment. Homeopathy can present a danger if its use delays or replaces conventional treatment.

Social Support and Spirituality

Having the support of friends and family can help you deal with the depression, fear, and anxiety that accompany cancer. In some cases, a strong support network can even affect the length of survival of cancer patients; studies have shown that men who experience limited social contact have a shorter survival time, while women with good social support survive longer from their cancers.

Prayer can relieve stress, create a sense of meaning and purpose, and provide solace. Being an actively spiritual person may have even more benefits; cancer patients who consider themselves spiritual suffer less anxiety and depression, and even less pain, from their cancer.

At-Home Care for Cancer

Relieving side effects of cancer treatment:

After radiation therapy for cancer, be gentle to your skin. Do not scrub it, expose it to sunlight, or wear tight clothing. Aloe vera ointment is gentle and soothing, along with non-irritating lotions or creams, such as vitamin E.

Eat light snacks throughout the day rather than three heavy meals. Try eating food cold or at room temperature to avoid nausea.

If your treatment involves lowering your white blood cell count, avoid people who are ill. Tell your doctor about any fever or unusual symptoms.

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Relieving pain:

In addition to taking prescribed medication, try relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation.

Other tips:

Join a cancer support group.

Get plenty of rest, balanced with light exercise.

Rather than feeling compelled to maintain a "positive attitude," express your emotions honestly. Don't worry if you sometimes feel depressed or afraid: These are normal feelings and legitimate reactions that will not affect your cancer.

Fill your days with activities you enjoy. Reading a good book, listening to music, and talking with friends are surprisingly therapeutic.

Contact the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute for free information about cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and tips for managing cancer symptoms.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sujana Movva, MD on March 17, 2015

Sources

SOURCES: 

National Cancer Institutes. 

WebMD Medical Reference from the American College of Physicians: "Oncology I Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention."

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