Dialogue with doctor sheds light on cancer myths and facts

By Colin Rajala - Staff Writer
Enfield - posted Thu., Dec. 13, 2012
Dr. Jaykumar Thumar speaks at the Enfield Public Library's Johnson Memorial Hospital Health Series: Cancer Facts & Myth on Dec. 11. Photos by Colin Rajala.
Dr. Jaykumar Thumar speaks at the Enfield Public Library's Johnson Memorial Hospital Health Series: Cancer Facts & Myth on Dec. 11. Photos by Colin Rajala.

The incidence of cancer in the U.S. continues to grow, with one in three Americans eventually developing some form of cancer, and one in four deaths being attributable to cancer in this country. The struggle to deal with the disease and to help people get through it has been strengthened by the fact that we are learning more about treatment and are becoming more familiar with the people who are going through it.

According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results program of the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million people will be diagnosed in 2012, which equates to about 4,400 diagnoses every day. Of those diagnoses, almost 600,000 cancer patients will die, equating to about 1,500 deaths per day. The statistics may seem ominous and worrisome, but it is also estimated that 65.4 percent of cancer patients will survive the disease, and that statistic figures to increase with the increase of research and development of technology.

On Dec. 1, the Enfield Public Library, alongside Johnson Memorial Hospital, hosted its final health series discussion of the year with “Cancer Facts and Myths” presented by board-certified oncologist Dr. Jaykumar Thumar. The program gave guests an opportunity to learn about some of the swirling rumors and misconceptions surrounding the disease, as well as what can be expected through detection and treatment.

“It was interesting and I learned a lot, especially because my son died of leukemia,” said Helen Waskiel. “The reason I came was because of my other two children. I was kind of wondering if they might come down with it. It was reassuring to hear that leukemia is sporadic. I was glad to hear his input. He was great,” she said of the speaker.

Thumar opened his presentation with a question and answer session with the audience, setting an informal tone to the discussion while answering the questions they found to be most pertinent or interesting about the disease.

“We were not expecting this many people; it was a very good turnout,” Thumar said. “I was skeptical about keeping it open because I was afraid people may ask questions that are not relevant, or personal questions. I was amazed by the quality of questions people asked. They asked good general questions that generated a lot of discussion.”

The program started with a question concerning warning signs and detection of the disease. The audience member noted that colonoscopies, Pap smears and mammograms exist for some of the more common types of cancer, but there didn't seem to be tests for harder to diagnose cases like pancreatic cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. Thumar said that screening processes for uncommon cancers are a work in progress. For uncommon cancers, he urged people to look at their family history, visit the doctor yearly and follow up if aches and pains persist, because they can be the first sign of a tumor. He followed up by discussing that some cancers can be detected through blood tests.

Some people wanted to know more about chemotherapy, including exactly what it is, how it is administered and what it does. Thumar's answer was that most chemotherapeutic drugs are given through intravenous infusions, or orally in liquid and pill form, to work against mitosis (cell division) through targeting fast-dividing cells – the ones that can spread cancer. Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but it also cannot detect between cancer and regular cells, so it kills off regular cells as well, resulting in the side effects. Short-term side effects of the treatment include hair loss, nausea, fatigue and depression. The long-term effects are harder to quantify, according to Thumar, but neuropathy - a tingling or numbing sensation in body parts - can exist, as well as heart problems.

Thumar also answered questions about how cancer is identified and developed, what types of new treatments are coming out, whether certain hospitals are better for particular types of cancer and how radiation treatment works, as well as the short-term and long-term effect of radiation on patients. Thumar ended his discussion with the topic of lung cancer and smoking, because he said many myths seem to exist within this field. He told audience members that quitting smoking early on will substantially lower the risk of developing cancer, adding that even those who quit smoking later on in life will lower their chance of developing the disease. He said that smoking cigars is just as bad as cigarettes, even if they are not inhaled, because cancer can still easily be formed in the lymph nodes, mouth and throat.

“Hopefully we can do this every year," Thumar said at the end of the discussion. "Maybe we can focus on a particular cancer or something.”

“I want to give people two messages,” he said, in conclusion. "Spread the word to stop smoking; it is causing the majority of cancer in the United States. And my second message is to get mammographies and colonoscopies; they are a significant help in early detection.”

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