The message is clear: get screened for cancer early, before you get symptoms, and there is a good chance it will be caught when it’s most treatable. But despite widespread awareness of this fact, only 14 percent of cancers are detected through recommended screenings.
During February, National Cancer Prevention Month, three members of CHD’s Cancer House of Hope, who are all cancer survivors, were asked about the importance of not only screening, but also self-advocacy: informing yourself as thoroughly as possible about testing and cancer treatment options, and effectively dealing with medical professionals to get your needs met.
Joe Berger, Becky Gonzalez, and Mary Grocott graciously shared their stories about their cancer screenings and diagnoses.
The vast majority of cancer types don’t have regular screening tests: only four do: breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer. There is no standard or routine screening for prostate cancer, just a digital rectal exam to feel the prostate gland for enlargement or lumps, and a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test that measures the level of PSA in the blood.
Berger, 69, began getting PSA tests in his late 50s after a digital rectal exam revealed an enlarged prostate. The first year his PSA level was 0.03, which is in the normal range. “Each year, the numbers kept rising—0.05, 0.06, and in 2015, when I was 62, it was 0.07,” he said. “They told me my numbers are high, so they’re going to do a biopsy.”
Then he heard the three words no one wants to hear: “You’ve got cancer.”
He went over his options: radiation therapy or surgery. He chose surgery, was hospitalized for five days, and was out of work for six weeks. “The next year, my numbers started climbing again—0.3, 0.4, 0.5, they took another biopsy, and said, ‘Joe, it looks like you’ve got cancer again.’ So, I did radiation treatments every day for two months.”
At present, Berger has been taking a turmeric and ginger supplement regularly, and his PSA number is zero. Turmeric is a spice whose primary active component curcumin, may be able to stop or weaken tumor cell production, according to several studies. And ginger extract has been found to inhibit the growth of prostate cancer in mice. “Now I get my PSA done four times a year,” he said.
As for the importance of screening, Berger said that if he hadn’t seen his primary care physician and undergone the digital rectal exam, he just might not be here to discuss his experience.
In 2019, when Becky Gonzalez went in for her annual mammogram, the results came back negative, even though she had felt a lump in her breast. She missed her annual screening in 2020 due to COVID-19, and by the time she got another mammogram in 2021, the lump had grown.
“The doctor said, ‘Let’s do a mammogram and ultrasound,” she said. “They still didn’t see it in the mammogram, but it was found during the ultrasound when the nurse really started digging [the transducer wand] in there. If she didn’t do that, I would have gone home thinking I was fine.”
After more testing, Gonzalez was informed that she had stage three cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. In her case, dense breast tissue had made it more difficult to effectively evaluate the results of her mammogram. After undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she is now cancer-free. Gonzalez encourages others to get screened for cancer, but also to be proactive about their health. Seven years ago she became extremely health conscious, stopped drinking alcohol, and started the practice of juicing—extracting the natural liquids, vitamins, and minerals from raw fruits and vegetables. “I became a health coach,” she said. “This lifestyle might have slowed down the spread of the cancer during this time.”
She also feels it’s important to be aware of how your body looks and feels, and to look out for any changes. “You know your body,” said Gonzalez. “If you feel that something is there, get it checked,” she said. “The earlier they find the cancer, the better.”
Mary Grocott had followed all the well-known cancer prevention recommendations, including getting a colonoscopy at age 50, when the gastroenterologist had found a couple of precancerous polyps during the procedure and removed them. “He said, I’ll see you in about 10 years, and there was no cause for him to think anything different,” she recalled. Colon cancer did not run in her family, and for several years she had no changes in her bowel habits or any of the other telltale signs for colon cancer.
“I paid attention to my health, I didn’t let things slide in terms of having my checkups, but my stomach started bothering me,” she said. A teacher, she thought it was back-to-school nerves because it was happening in the fall. “But I let my primary care physician know that I needed to get in before my regularly scheduled appointment,” Her doctor wanted her to get another colonoscopy, and Grocott is grateful for that recommendation.
In her second colonoscopy, eight years after her first—ahead of the recommended 10 years—the endocscopist had trouble getting the camera through the colon, which happens in 10 to 20 percent of colonoscopies. In another procedure, a biopsy was able to be taken on a mass they found, and it came back as cancerous. In 2017 she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer—it had spread to her breast.
Grocott credits her PCP with being a “rare breed” who will not rush through appointments in 15 minutes. “I know to bring a book to read in the waiting room, because she will see every patient for as long as she needs to see them,” she said.
She pointed out that it’s vital to be aware of changes in your body that might be cancer. “I’m like Becky [Gonzalez] on this one: know yourself,” she said. She has found in her cancer journey that although we’re all busy with our lives, we simply can’t procrastinate when it comes to getting screened. “Don’t avoid timely screenings,” she said. “Just do it!”