Local cancer services director: Increased diagnoses means screenings are working

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cancer of all kinds affects local residents on a daily basis. Through a month-long weekly series, the Sun-Gazette will speak with survivors of some of the most common forms of cancer locally. The paper realizes that not all cancer survivors share the same experiences and opinions as those featured in this series, which continues on Tuesdays through Oct. 31.)

Cancer diagnoses seem to be on the rise, but it’s not necessarily because people are becoming more unhealthy, said Michelle Gaida, executive director of cancer services for UPMC Susquehanna.

With nearly 750 cancer cases in Lycoming County from 2010-14, increased diagnoses may be attributed in part to an aging population, she said.

But, more so, they’re due to screening efforts.

“We’re screening more, and screening more means catching more,” Gaida said. “Oncologists focus on two things: prevention, and education and screening. If we can’t stop it, we want to catch it. The earlier you catch it, the better your chances for survival.”

The most common types of cancer in the county are breast, lung, colorectal (or colon), bladder and prostate cancers, Gaida said. But “almost every part of the body can become cancerous,” she said.

Lung cancer especially is an example of how screenings are catching more types of cancers at earlier stages. Gaida said lung cancer can be extremely difficult to catch because it often doesn’t have noticeable symptoms. It frequently metastasizes, or spreads to other parts of the body, before being detected.

“What we used to catch in stage 4, when it might be too late, we’re now catching in stages 1 and 2,” she said.

Colorectal, or colon, cancer is harder to catch due to people’s unwillingness to be tested, Gaida said. Many people are happy to put off having a colonoscopy — a rectal and colon exam used to find cancerous polyps and other health problems, mainly in people over the age of 50.

But Gaida said a colonoscopy isn’t the only option. A fecal immunochemical test checks the stool for signs of rectal or colon cancers and other problems such as hemorrhoids.

“A lot of people don’t know about this test so, if they’re adamantly against a colonoscopy, they just do nothing,” Gaida said. “And we don’t want that.”

Screening is just the start to the full scope of services provided throughout a cancer patient’s treatment.

Gaida said patients show appreciation for the support groups available to them, which are disease specific. This way, patients can relate to and learn from one another, and not feel alone in their treatment.

“Education is power. The more knowledge you have, the better,” Gaida said. “The more informed you are, the better your decisions are going to be.”

Care doesn’t stop once a patient is considered a survivor, Gaida said.

“Survivors have a lot of anxiety,” she said. “Will the cancer come back? Did it metastasize?”

To help them, UPMC has Survivor Care Clinics, which use evidence-based care plans from the American Society of Clinical Oncology to help connect survivors with more resources, teach them about expected side effects of their respective treatments and provide them with financial, spiritual and mental health counseling free of charge.

Further, the patient and everyone on their care team, such as oncologists, family practitioner and any surgeons who may have been involved in treatment, receive the same information so everyone is on the same page when it comes to the patient’s recovery, Gaida said.

“The patient’s empowered,” Gaida said. “The patient’s informed.”

Patients’ family members are considered throughout treatment, too, Gaida added. Care providers help treat the disease site, the whole person and their family, she said.

“Cancer touches so many lives, so it’s not just important that we’re the latest and greatest,” she said, “but also that we treat the mind, body and soul.”