Peter Tothy, M.D., specializes in hematology and oncology at Cancer Health Treatment Centers, P.C., located throughout Northwest Indiana, and is on staff at Methodist Hospital, St. Anthony Medical Center and St. Mary Medical Center. Dr. Tothy earned his medical degree from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He completed internship and residency in internal medicine at University of Chicago, and fellowships in hematology and oncology and in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He is a volunteer clinical assistant professor of medicine at Indiana University Northwest School of Medicine. Dr. Tothy blends modern targeted treatments, biologic and chemotherapies within a holistic context to treat the whole patient.
Q: In layman’s terms, what is cancer? Cancer is an abnormal, uncontrolled growth of the body’s own cells. Our body’s cells have a regular life cycle, but cancer cells don’t have that life cycle. They’re “on” all the time, unregulated. There are more than 100 different cancers. Each cancer is named from the part of the body where it started and the type of cell it started in. For example, breast cancer cells that have spread to another organ will still look like cancerous breast cells under the microscope. Cancer is not an infectious disease. You can’t “catch it” from someone.
Q: How does cancer affect the human body’s cells, organs? Cancer forms into masses of cells or tumors that can compress on the organs, causing obstructions, in the colon or airway, for example. The tumors also cause inflammation or swelling, or crowd out and take over the functions of the organ.
Q: How are cancers linked to lifestyle issues? Some people have increased genetic risks for certain types of cancers; it “runs in the family.” But everyone can be affected by environmental and lifestyle experiences that increase the risk of developing cancer. For example, radiation exposure from X-rays or from the sun’s ultraviolet light, and environmental exposures to such substances as asbestos or carcinogenic chemicals have been linked to cancer. But lifestyle choices and habits seem to play a significant role in cancer risk. Tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, is one of these. The most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, is often caused by direct ultraviolet exposure. Unhealthy choices in our diets also expose us to more risk. For example, the typical Midwestern diet of meat and potatoes can increase inflammation that can promote cancer growth. Maintaining an unhealthy weight and being inactive raises the risk of cancer. Alcohol can irritate the liver, leaving it vulnerable to both cirrhosis and cancer. Some viruses, such as HIV, Epstein-Barr and HPV, can cause tissue changes that raise cancer risk. Healthy lifestyle changes can lower your risk of cancer. It’s never too late to make lifestyle changes. Even patients with active cancers and undergoing treatment fare better if they make these changes.
Q: What else can help prevent or minimize the risk of various types of cancer? Screenings are essential. A woman should have regular mammography screenings and pap smears. Men should have PSA tests to detect prostate abnormalities and have testicular exams. Skin examinations, both self-exam and by a physician, are important. Everyone should have a colonoscopy starting at age 50 (unless there’s a problem earlier or a family history). The colonoscopy detects and removes polyps in the colon that could develop in cancer.
Q: Are all cancers detectable at an early stage? Many cancers are detectable at an early stage when treatment is far more effective. That’s why screenings are vital. However, some cancers, such as the kind that starts in the pancreas, may not have early symptoms and typically aren’t diagnosed until it’s already in an advanced stage.
Q: What are the signs and symptoms to look for to help detect cancer early? First, know your own body. Notice any changes—in your skin, a lump in the breast or scrotum, changes in body functions, unusual bleeding (as from the rectum), persistent cough, etc. Don’t panic, but seek a medical opinion. Not all changes signal cancer. Second, schedule screenings. That can’t be emphasized enough. Tests can detect signs and symptoms you haven’t noticed and can prevent or catch cancers earlier, increasing the chance of cure.