By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.

When it comes to your health, preventing a problem is always preferable to treating a problem.  I’d much rather not get cancer than find it early and deal with radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.

A key concept in becoming a highly, healthy mom is understanding the subtle difference between prevention and early detection. To illustrate this I want to focus on three common procedures, the mammogram, Pap smear and colonoscopy.  Now there’s a lineup you can love to hate!

Mammograms and breast cancer awareness go together like ice and tea.  In fact, many women view mammograms as a prime tool for the prevention of breast cancer, yet no one ever stopped breast cancer with a mammogram.  The smash-a-gram is by far the best tool for early detection but it doesn’t actually prevent anything.  Early detection is wonderful as numerous studies have proven that finding a breast cancer early dramatically improves the survival rate but wouldn’t it be great to prevent the occurrence of the breast cancer outright?  Prevention (or reducing the risk of) breast cancer is possible and that’s where your major focus should be.  Studies indicate that a healthy weight, low fat foods, exercise, minimal alcohol intake and not smoking all actually lower your risk.  Breast exams, mammograms and ultrasounds may find something early but they don’t actually prevent the problem.  A subtle but important distinction.  This is a case where both prevention and early detection can be lifesaving.

Probably no other procedure has done more for advancing women’s health than the Pap smear.  Not just for the early detection of cervical cancer but also for advancing the routine, yearly checkup.  We have a wonderful control group in comparing health outcomes by looking at men.  Not having the same compulsion to get yearly exams, many men go for years without a check up, thus missing many opportunities to both prevent problems and detect them early.  Since the regular use of the Pap smears in the 50s, the occurrence of cervical cancer has dropped 50 percent.  No other preventive test can claim such efficacy. The Pap is preventive in that it can pick up changes long before a cancer develops allowing for minor solutions to potentially major problems.  It is unique in that it is both preventive and diagnostic, thus magnifying its value. There are some lifestyle changes that have been associated with lower rates of cervical cancer such as limiting sexual partners, getting the HPV vaccine and once again, not smoking.

Who doesn’t like getting a colonoscopy?  Everyone I know!  This procedure is very similar to the Pap smear in that it can be both preventive and diagnostic.  Your doc may find a polyp in a pre-cancerous stage and be able to extract it thus preventing it from ever getting worse.  Prior to getting that video tour of your intestines, what can you do to actually prevent  colon cancer?  Again, there are a number of behaviors associated with lower risks.  Maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking (see a pattern emerging?!), increasing your insoluble fiber intake, lowering your red meat consumption and taking a baby aspirin a day (ask your doctor first).

Hopefully, the distinction between prevention and early detection is clear by now.  It’s why I tell women that a low fat, low calorie diet is more preventive of breast cancer than a mammogram.  That’s often met with a skeptical look but now it should be obvious what I mean.

There are a number of facts about disease prevention that may surprise you.  For example, women who take birth control pills have a lower incidence of ovarian cancer.  Taking hormones right around the time of menopause may reduce heart disease but starting hormones later in life may actually increase your risks.  The type of foods you eat are not as important as the amounts when you are trying to lose weight but fats, carbohydrates, and proteins become very important when focusing on keeping the weight off.  Calcium, Vitamin D, magnesium, and boron are often more effective and safer than prescription medications for the prevention of osteoporosis.  One of the most effective prevention tools across the board is maintaining a healthy weight.  Over 13 different cancers have been directly related to obesity including uterine, breast, ovarian and pancreatic.

There are a number of medications that have been touted as preventive tools, yet the majority are really just early treatment.  A notable exception is low dose aspirin which has been associated with decreased colon cancer, blood clot formation and some heart disease.  It’s not for everyone as even aspirin has numerous potential side effects.  As in all things, (and to keep the lawyers at bay) don’t ever start a medicine, herb or “natural” remedy without consulting your doctor as there can be consequences.

This article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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