Cancer

What are pulmonary nodules — can they cause lung cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K:I saw my doctor because I've been getting short of breath. He did an X-ray and CT scan that found three small "pulmonary nodules." Do I have lung cancer?

DEAR READER: There are few things more frustrating, for both you and your doctor, than when the doctor says: "Well, it's almost surely nothing to worry about ... but there is a small possibility that it's bad." How often does that happen? Pretty much every day, in my experience.

Does eating fish help prevent prostate cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Does eating fish help prevent prostate cancer?

DEAR READER: You've certainly heard me encourage readers to eat plenty of fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. That's because many good studies have found that people who eat fish frequently have lower rates of many serious diseases, including heart disease and several types of cancer. A recently published study from the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT) was described in the media as coming to the opposite conclusion. I don't agree, but to explain why, I first need to talk about the substances in fish that are thought to be beneficial for humans.

As a longtime smoker should I be screened for lung cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm a longtime smoker. Do I need to be screened for lung cancer even if I don't have any symptoms?

DEAR READER: Until recently, my answer would have been "no." In the not-too-distant past, screening of people without symptoms -- even smokers who were at high risk -- was judged useless for lung cancer. That's because screening for lung cancer involved using standard chest X-rays, and they produced too many "false positive" results: They identified "spots" in the lungs that were harmless.

Do I have colon cancer if my doctor found a polyp during my colonoscopy?

DEAR DOCTOR K: During a screening colonoscopy, my doctor found a polyp in my colon. Does this mean I have cancer?

DEAR READER: Colon polyps are common, non-cancerous growths of tissue inside the colon, or large intestine. Some of them are benign. However, other colon polyps can progress into colon cancer. These are called adenomatous polyps.

Why does marriage have such a positive effect on patients with cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I read about a study that said married cancer patients do better than those who aren't married. Why does marriage have such a positive effect?

DEAR READER: You're probably talking about a study that was published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study included about 735,000 people diagnosed with 10 different types of cancer. Married men were 23 percent less likely to die of cancer than those who were single, widowed or divorced.

Does having dense breast tissue increase my risk of breast cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K: After my last mammogram, the doctor told me I have dense breasts. Does this increase my risk of breast cancer?

DEAR READER: A woman's breast contains different types of tissue, including fat. Women with dense breasts have relatively less fat in their breasts. Specifically, if more than 50 percent of your breasts is made up of other breast tissue (as opposed to fat), then by definition you are said to have "dense breasts." It's not uncommon: About 40 percent of women have dense breasts.

Are there lifestyle changes that can help my cancer recovery?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm a cancer survivor. Should I be following special guidelines for diet and exercise?

DEAR READER: Advances in cancer treatment and earlier detection are allowing more people to live longer after a cancer diagnosis. Today, more than 12 million Americans are cancer survivors. And many of them look to diet and exercise to help prevent cancer recurrence, live longer or just feel better.

How does lumpectomy plus radiation compare to mastectomy for treating breast cancer?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I was recently diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. My doctor wants me to consider a lumpectomy plus radiation. But wouldn't a mastectomy be more effective?

DEAR READER: In a lumpectomy, just the cancer and tissue immediately around it are removed, and radiation therapy is used to kill any nearby cancer cells that might not have been removed. In a mastectomy, the whole breast is removed. Since sometimes breast cancer cells (invisible to the eye of the surgeon) can spread into the surrounding breast, it's plausible to think that a mastectomy might have a better cure rate than just a lumpectomy.

Should I take tamoxifen longer than five years?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I was diagnosed with ER-positive breast cancer a few years ago. My doctor told me to take tamoxifen for five years to prevent my cancer from coming back. I recently read that taking tamoxifen longer further decreases the risk of a cancer recurrence. What should I do?

DEAR READER: The simple answer is: Ask your primary care doctor if you should talk to a breast cancer specialist, because it may well be a good idea to continue on the tamoxifen. But I know you won't be satisfied with a simple answer, so here's a more elaborate one.