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Early screening crucial in fight against cancer

Have you had your check-up lately?

Dr. Dimitrios Vergidis, chief of oncology at Regional Cancer Care in the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, stressed the importance of early screening during a cancer program update Monday evening at La Place Rendez-Vous here.

In Canada, the three most common types of cancer for men include prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer while for women it’s breast, lung, and colorectal, Dr. Vergidis told the crowd of about 50 people who attended the hour-long talk.

The most often fatal form for both men and women is lung cancer while colorectal is second for men and breast cancer is second for women. Prostate cancer is third-deadliest for men, with colorectal the third-most fatal for women.

Pancreatic cancer ties for fourth-most fatal for both sexes.

“Lung cancer is the worse one, and it’s the worse one for two reasons,” said Dr. Vergidis. “We do not have a good screening program, so you cannot find lung cancer easily.

“But it’s preventable cancer, as well. If we all stop smoking, especially the young ones, years from now we won’t have lung cancer.

“Without smoking, the chances of getting lung cancer are extremely small,” he added. “If you’re a smoker, it doesn’t matter when you quit, it decreases the chance of getting lung cancer.

“Surprisingly, if you quit smoking altogether, you’re chance never goes to zero, and that’s very sad because we do see people get lung cancer and they quit 10 years ago.”

But Dr. Vergidis stressed there are good screening tests in place for breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers.

“But not everybody gets screened, and the screening tests are very important,” he noted. “The reason is you want to find cancer very early.

“I want to give an example with breast cancer. Cancer starts in the breast. Predictably it will spread to the lymph nodes and then go somewhere else.

“But all of this time-dependent—the earlier you find it, the better it is,” Dr. Vergidis said. “If you have the cancer confined only to the breast, and the same thing goes for cancer in the bowel and the prostate glands, you take it out by surgery, or with prostate, radiation, and you have a very high probability of cure.

“But the moment it spreads to your lymph glands, the probability decreases,” he warned.

“A woman who has breast cancer in the breast only, the chance of cure with surgery alone is 80 percent. If your lymph nodes are involved, your chance of cure is 60 percent.

“You can see the change.”

Dr. Vergidis stressed that since breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer can’t be prevented, the best defence is early detection by screening. But unfortunately, these numbers could use some improvement.

For example, for women aged 50 -70, it’s recommended they get a mammography every two years, but the reality is only 26 percent of Ontario women in that age group do so.

Likewise, the screening rates for colorectal cancer in Ontario are “dismally low.”

Dr. Vergidis said the older people get, the more common it is for them to get cancer. That’s why it’s important for them to keep getting checked even when your age is beyond the screening guidelines.

< *c>Treatment, prevention

Dr. Vergidis said new cancer treatments continually are being worked on, including molecularly-targeted therapy.

A new field in oncology that tailors drugs or antibodies to attack specific cancers but not the patient’s body, Dr. Vergidis described it as using a “smart bomb” instead of a “cluster bomb” to treat cancer.

These range from Dasatinib, which has been used to treat Chronic Neutrophilic Leukemia (CNL), to Rituximab, a mouse-human chimeric anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody used to treat lymphoma.

Sometimes paired with other treatments like traditional chemotherapy, these molecularly-targeted therapies—some of which are still in the experimental stages—have shown promising degrees of success, said Dr. Vergidis.

He also mentioned the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that has been making headlines this year, noting research indicates the vaccine will help reduce incidents of cervical cancer but that any possible long-term effects still aren’t known.

He clarified that although the campaign is targeting young girls, HPV is a common sexually-transmitted disease carried by both males and females.

Dr. Vergidis pointed out that “nobody’s immune” to cancer, but there’s things people can do to decrease their chances of getting it.

Quitting smoking is a major factor, and in fact, the number of men who die from lung cancer is on the decline due to decreased public acceptability and the provincial Clean Air Act (the death rate for women has not declined, as statistically women are less likely to quit).

Dr. Vergidis also said everyone should eat sensibly, watch their weight, and be active, adding there’s “convincing evidence” that physical activity plays a role in reducing cancer, specifically colon and breast cancer.

He noted it’s estimated that one-third of cancer deaths in North America can be attributed to poor diet and inactivity.

Looking further down the road, scientists continue to investigate environmental causes of cancer, as well as research “chemopreventative” drugs, vaccines, and dietary supplements that may help people lower the risk of developing cancer in the first place.

While Dr. Vergidis annually gives public talks like this in Thunder Bay, this marked his first “road trip” session. He was here Monday and yesterday to do follow-up visits with local cancer patients.

Monday’s meeting concluded with a a few words from Anthony Kadikoff and Bridgette Parker of the Northern Cancer Research Foundation (NCRF), who reminded the public the NCRF is the only cancer fundraising organization that is dedicated to 100 percent Northwestern Ontario cancer care.

It supports the TBayTel Tamarack House in Thunder Bay, as well as provides funding to the 13 local communities that have cancer treatment facilities.

In the last two years, NCRF has provided just over $17,000 to Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc. for its cancer program here.

Last year, the NCRF granted $1.34 million to area cancer programs. As of October, 2006, it has put $9.1 million into improving cancer services in Northwestern Ontario.

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