June 1, 2015

House Call

Q: I have a close friend, age 50, who has just been diagnosed with cancer. We are all numb from the shock! She—like me and many of our friends—has been a lifelong vegetarian and generally health-conscious. We’ve also been confused about the need of having regular health checks. Is this necessary if we live healthfully?

A: It’s never easy to face the diagnosis of cancer. The stark reality is that however healthfully we live, we will, should the Lord tarry, most likely die from one of two causes: heart disease or cancer. We may be tempted to feel that living healthfully will prevent all diseases. Unfortunately, we live on this broken planet, ravaged by the results of sin, and no one is excluded from the genetic and environmental risks of disease. In this context, environmental risks include the causes of the so-called noncommunicable diseases, including tobacco smoke, alcohol, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. Exposure to radiation, sunshine, excessive solar exposure, occupational toxins, and pollutants in general are also environmental risk factors.

Genetic makeup and heredity also contribute to our susceptibility to cancer. There is a robust relationship between family history and breast cancer, certain bowel cancers, and prostate cancer. Individuals who have first-degree family members (mother, father, grandmother, grandfather) who had those malignancies just mentioned have to be especially vigilant with screening for these diseases.

Lifestyle is a very important factor in reducing the incidence of cancer. Being a vegetarian helps to reduce overall risk for certain cancers significantly, but not forever. As we age, our immune systems age, and defenses against cancer decrease.

It’s important to be on the lookout for any unexplained symptoms or changes in bodily function that vary from one’s normal pattern. These include:

  • unexplained, unintentional weight loss
  • changes in bowel habits: persistent diarrhea or constipation
  • blood in the stools or urine
  • abnormal discharges from the body’s orifices, including the breasts
  • new lumps or bumps
  • sores that persist and don’t heal
  • coughing blood
  • difficulty in swallowing or a choking feeling when swallowing food
  • unexplained hoarseness
  • extreme tiredness that doesn’t improve following rest or a vacation
  • changes in the skin, especially moles that become darker, tend to bleed, or appear to be growing
  • an elevated or “swinging” temperature unrelated to an infective cause

These symptoms don’t always indicate the presence of a cancer; however, one should always have these checked by a physician. In context, your doctor will advise on the best screening test(s) for you, whether mammography, colonoscopy, skin biopsy, or blood tests for cancer markers such as the PSA (prostate specific antigen)—even though there may be debate about some of them. All tests should be done in the context of the patient on a regular basis. Annual physicals are a good opportunity for these decisions to be made.

Be supportive of your friend. Pray for her and minister to her and her family with kindness, visits, and—where needed—privacy to come to terms with mortality. But always be confident of the blessed hope!