Since 1980, I have worked as a nurse at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. From primary care to the emergency department, I have seen all sorts of patients, and patients have always been my favorite part of my job. Now, I am a nurse practitioner at the Cancer Center. Because of the difficulty they face, the patients I treat now are some of the most thoughtful and determined I have ever encountered.
In some cases, there is nothing patients could have done differently to avoid getting cancer. But many patients have a few things in common. Changes in behavior may have prevented their struggle. This article is for people who may still have an opportunity to avoid this disease.
Tobacco use is the number one cause of all cancer and the cause of many other diseases. If you smoke, try to quit. There are many resources available. Locally, the Vermont Blueprint for Health and United Health Alliance offer free Fresh Start classes throughout Bennington County. Call Eileen at 802-440-4098 for more information and to register.
After the class ends, continue to use the sources and tips until you feel confident in your ability to stop smoking for good. If you slip up, don't beat yourself up. Get right back to it. Quitting smoking is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your overall health.
The second most important cancer prevention step diet and exercise. We have all heard dozens of tips meant to help us improve our diet and exercise habits. Aiming for perfection is overwhelming and ineffective. Meaningful change is accomplished in small steps.
No matter what your body mass index or physical fitness, you can make one small change to improve your health and wellbeing. Choose just one tip—eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages or parking in the spot furthest from the entrance at work or while shopping, for instance.
Even those who feel they are already eating healthfully and exercising regularly might choose to incorporate a weekly hike or some weight lifting into their routine or to eat only packaged foods that have fewer than five ingredients. There is always room for improvement.
When you choose the healthier option without thinking about it, choose another healthy habit to incorporate into your daily life. Before long, there will be a whole list of less-healthy things you used to do. And your risk of cancer and other diseases will have dropped.
When you can't prevent cancer, it is best to catch it early. Cancers that are detected early are more treatable and more curable.
Your yearly primary care appointment is your best tool for catching cancer early. There are three important ways your primary care doctor helps. During a routine yearly exam, your doctor will do a preliminary check for cancers of the thyroid, mouth, skin, and lymph nodes.
Second, your doctor will remind you to schedule the recommended screenings for your gender and age.
Finally, with your health and family history, your doctor will help you determine if you are at higher risk for cancer based on your condition, behaviors, or genetic background. If so, your doctor will recommend you get screened earlier than a person with average risk, more often or both.
If you are a smoker or have smoked in the last 15 years, ask your doctor about a low-dose CT scan for the early detection of lung cancer. Cancers detected in this way are far easier to treat.
Other preventive appointments include biannual dental checkups and, for women, a yearly gynecological exam.
If you follow these tips — quit tobacco, choose one healthy habit to incorporate into your life, and attend your yearly primary care and your biannual dentist appointments — I will be more likely to see you in the produce section of the supermarket or on a walk around town and less likely to see you at the Cancer Center.
Carol Comar-Frost, NP, sees patients at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center Cancer Center and is a member of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Medical Group. For more information about cancer treatment at SVMC call (802) 447-1836 or visit svhealthcare.org/cancer. "Health Matters" is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.