New Ways to Find the Oldest Disease

Is cancer caused by our modern lifestyle? Or have humans virtually always had cancer? Researchers continue to seek answers, and in fact, British scientists recently found a 3,000-year-old skeleton with soft tissue cancer tumors throughout the body. In any case, it’s clear that modern medicine and science have dramatically improved our ability to fight, and detect early this ancient disease.

Oncologists preach early detection because tumors at their earliest stages are often easier to treat more effectively. But some cancers don’t show symptoms until later stages. That’s why tests for cancer – screenings – are so important to helping discover it early.

While no one wants to hear they have cancer, one in two men and one in three women in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. So it makes sense that everyone needs to be screened for the most common cancer types – using the most familiar methods such as mammograms and colonoscopies. But as science marches forward, we are learning more about how to treat cancer, but also, importantly, how to find it. That includes innovations in testing for multiple cancer types with one screening, enhanced screening methods that are more accurate, and for cancers previously without a screening test. Oncologists are optimistic that these advances will make detecting cancer at its earliest stages easier and faster.

The “holy grail” of cancer detection is a “liquid biopsy,” which simply put, is a blood test that detects cancer. This screening, still in development, would analyze a small blood sample and look for circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, as well as fragments of tumor DNA. These would indicate that there is cancer somewhere in the person’s body. Liquid biopsy technology is catching up with researchers’ bold visions, and this simple test may someday be a part of everyone’s annual physical. For those with cancer, the test may help determine which medication will work best. Liquid biopsy tests are not currently approved for wide use but hold great promise in advancing cancer detection.

Researchers are working on ways to improve existing screenings. For screenings that rely on imaging, such as CT scans, MRIs, or mammograms, researchers are developing methods to “light up” cancer cells with specially engineered fluorescent dyes that bind to cancer cells only. In the imaging test, tumors wouldn’t just appear as lighter spots – they would light up brightly, giving physicians a clearer view. Researchers also are working on ways to use “light up” dyes during tumor removal surgeries.

For some long-term, heavy smokers, we’re starting to screen for lung cancer. People ages 55-80 who are current or former heavy smokers (have quit smoking within the past 15 years) should consider a yearly low-dose CT to screen for lung cancer. Early detection, combined with advances in treatment, can give lung cancer patients more and better options in their fight.

Treatment advances like immunotherapy deserve the headlines they are getting. It is indeed an exciting time to be fighting cancer. But advancements in screenings also are critical to strengthening the ability of my Texas Oncology colleagues and I to offer more hope than ever before to our patients in McAllen.

Guillermo Lazo, MD

Guillermo Lazo, MD, is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.  To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www.TexasOncology.com. or call 1-888-864-I CAN (4226).

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