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Health Team

Ask Dr. Mask: How do I know I don't have cancer?

Posted November 15, 2017 8:13 a.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2017 8:32 a.m. EST

[Editor's note: Dr. Mask will appear every day this week during the 6 a.m. hour on WRAL News Mornings with a series of special reports about the question's he's asked the most. On Thursday, Dr. Mask explains how become a vegetarian or vegan and do it the right way.]

Cancer can be one of the fears that keep people up at night, and it's one of the questions people ask their doctors most: How can I know that I don't have cancer?

There are ways to lower the risk of cancer, WRAL Health Team's Dr. Allen Mask said, but people can go too far in pursuit of that kind of assurance.

Most people know someone in their family or a close friends who has fought cancer or even died from it, which can motivate people to reduce their risk.

"Simple things like making sure your diet is healthy—that you're eating a wide variety of food, plant sources, animal sources (can help reduce the risk of cancer)," said Duke University oncologist Dr. Neeraj Agrawal.

Agrawal said other risk-reducing behaviors include regular exercise, achieving and maintaining a normal weight, limiting alcohol use and quitting smoking.

Diet and exercise can help mitigate the risk of cancer, but technology is making it easier to detect it, too. Several cancers can now be detected earlier than in the past through different screenings, Agrawal said.

"(Follow) age-appropriate screening guidelines for breast cancer, for cervical cancer, for colon cancer, for prostate cancer," Agrawal said.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women begin screening for breast cancer at age 40 and men get checked for prostate cancer beginning at age 45. The frequency of screenings changes as people age.

A strong family history of certain cancers can lead to earlier screening, though, as well as genetic counseling.

Mask said there are still many people who have no apparent cancer risk—and no symptoms—who want some kind of a blood test to reassure them that they don't have cancer. But Agrawal said those tests are not effective.

"It will lead to a lot of false positive results," Agrawal said. "It will lead to a lot of red herrings and wild goose chases and a lot more trouble than good."

He assures people there is not an epidemic of cancers in this country. Rather, great strides are being made to beat the disease.

"We are finding them at earlier stages. We're getting them cured. (Patients are) living longer," Agrawal said.

Agrawal also does not recommend herbal and mineral supplements to reduce cancer risk. He recommends getting those nutrients in natural forms within a healthy, balanced diet.