As researchers find new and better ways to target cancer, more people who get the disease will live longer and perhaps even be cured.
The goal isn’t just to treat cancer, but to stop it before it starts or spot it before it spreads. Scientists are making great strides in those areas.
Knowing your unique risks can help your doctor lower your odds of getting cancer and screen you for the disease.
Genes play a role in who gets cancer. So does the world around you. Things like obesity, diet, smoking, and exercise habits also play a role.
Knowing who’s most likely to get cancer helps doctors do a better job of checking for it. For example, instead of every woman having a yearly mammogram, doctors could focus more on testing those with higher chances of getting breast cancer.
More Precise Screening Tests
Sooner is always better when it comes to spotting cancer. It’s easier to treat if you catch it before it spreads. Finding it hasn't been simple, though.
Cancer screening tests come with risks. Mammograms and CT scans expose you to small amounts of radiation. Biopsies and colonoscopies can have side effects. Screening tests may report a disease that isn't really there. Doctors call this a false positive. And sometimes they pick up a cancer that isn't likely to grow. Both can lead to tests or treatments you don’t need.
More personalized tests could help doctors spot the people who need to be screened most and figure out how often to do the tests.
Genetic and genomic tests. These are the new frontier in cancer screening tests. They look for gene changes to find out whether you have cancer, and to predict how your tumor might behave.
One genetic test looks for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with one or both of these have a much higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers.
There’s also an at-home test that spots DNA changes in your poop to diagnose colon cancer. It isn’t invasive like a colonoscopy. But if the test says you have it, you'll need to get a colonoscopy to confirm the diagnosis.
And there’s a genomic test that looks at breast cancer genes to help doctors figure out which treatment will work best and whether the cancer is likely to come back.
Biomarkers. These find substances in blood, urine, and other body fluids that signal cancer. They can also predict how you might respond to treatment.
Biomarker tests include:
- Liver cancer: alpha-fetoprotein (AFP)
- Non-small-cell lung cancer: ALK gene
- Prostate cancer: prostate-specific antigen (PSA)
- Thyroid cancer: Thyroglobulin (TG)
Researchers are studying biomarkers for other cancers. One new test in the works measures levels of two proteins in your blood to diagnose pancreatic cancer early. But the science isn’t perfect yet. Biomarkers can be elevated by things besides cancer, so doctors are still trying to figure out the best ways to personalize the use of these tests.
Liquid biopsies. Researchers are looking into a blood test that could pick up many different cancers. It’s called a liquid biopsy, and it finds cancer DNA circulating in your blood. In 2016, the FDA approved the first liquid biopsy. It spots changes to the EGFR gene in the blood of people with non-small-cell lung cancer.
Other liquid biopsy tests are in the works to identify other types of cancers.
Cancer Prevention Drugs
What if you could avoid cancer by taking a daily medication? We're not there yet, but a few drugs show promise.
A pill you may already take to protect your heart might also prevent colorectal cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says at-risk adults ages 50 to 59 should take a daily aspirin to help prevent both heart disease and colorectal cancer.
A group of drugs that block estrogen receptors can lower breast cancer risk in patients with high risk. A group of drugs called aromatase inhibitors may also prevent the disease.
These work with your immune system, much like the shots you get to prevent measles and chickenpox. Some prevent cancer. Others treat the disease.
The HPV vaccine prevents the virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer. Since it was approved in 2006, it has lowered HPV infection rates in teenage girls by 64%. Another vaccine prevents hepatitis B, which increases your odds of liver cancer.
Treatment vaccines boost your body's immune system response against cancer. One vaccine, sipuleucel-T (Provenge), treats prostate cancer.
Scientists are also working on vaccines for other cancers, including colon cancer and melanoma.
What You Can Do
One of the best things you can do to lower your odds of getting cancer is to know your risks. Learn your family history and talk to your doctor.
Together you can set up a plan that uses the latest prevention and screening techniques.