A new study of over 32,000 patients showed that survivors of certain cancers, namely head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, and lung cancer are at an increased risk of another, yet different cancer. And the second cancer can be lethal – and it’s called non-small cell lung cancer.
Dr. Geena Wu presented her research from the City of Hope National Medical Center at the recent 2016 annual meeting of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Dr. Wu and colleagues looked at the SEER national database of 32,058 patients with a prior cancer who then went on to be diagnosed with a lung cancer 6 months or later following completion of their initial treatment.
Dr. Wu found that patients with a history of certain, specific cancers had higher rates than expected of getting non-small cell lung cancer years after their first cancer was cured. Survivors of head and neck cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer were especially at risk. Even survivors of lung cancer were at risk for coming down with a completely different second, unrelated lung cancer. And it follows that smoking is not only the likely culprit of not only the first cancer, but the second one as well. Smoking can cause multiple cancers.
As a cancer specialist, I see patients for follow-up visits each and every day. I hear the same story. “I’m finally done with surgery. I’ve been through months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation. And now I have to come for follow-up visits, not just for months but for years? So why won’t you specialists just give me a break?” The answer, without question is that follow-up visits are important. You need to continue to be screened for other cancers.
Unfortunately there is no limit on the number of cancers a person can get. Especially when you are talking about cancers that can be driven by lifestyle choses such as tobacco use. Cancer screenings like mammograms, colonoscopies, skin checks, and low dose lung cancer CT scans all still need to be performed on a regular basis for cancer survivors. These routine follow ups are more important for survivors than for those who have never had cancer.
I hear our survivors tell me on a day-to-day basis, “But can’t my family doctor just do the follow-up visits?” I think that follow-up visits by primary care physicians are ideal, but a recent poll of primary care physicians showed the two thirds preferred follow-up visits for cancer be done by cancer specialists, not the family doctor. I think that primary care physicians are already put upon to look after your general health in a 15 minute visit. I think the cancer specialists are uniquely trained to spot early signs of recurrent cancer as well as spotting the symptoms of a new, unrelated cancer. Once again, early detection is key to survival. Follow-up visits with your cancer specialist is time well spent.