Question: I wonder why they changed recommended breast cancer screenings from
yearly to every 2 years?

The recommendations change because we gain new knowledge. We learn more about how many women can be saved by mammograms. Our perspective can also change over time. For example, we might learn that mammograms detect 100 breast cancers that are life-threatening, but also detect 10,000 breast cancers that aren’t life-threatening. Is it good to detect and treat all 10,000 of them? There are trade-offs and different opinions.

We also get increasingly specific recommendations for different age groups. The effectiveness of mammograms differ by age, so the recommendations differ by age.

What’s even more confusing is that there are several national organizations that make screening recommendations and they aren’t consistent. Here’s a summary of some of them.

Note that these are general guidelines, so every woman should talk with her health professionals as to what’s best in her specific situation.

Here’s an article from TIME Magazine that discusses this.

Question: Colon cancer and rectal cancer are often grouped together as “colorectal” cancers. Are they one in the same?
Answer: No.

The colon and rectum are attached and, together, they form most of the large intestine (or large bowel as it’s known in the United Kingdom). The rectum is the final 4-6 inches of the intestinal tract. But colon cancer and rectal cancer are thought of as distinct diseases with differing characteristics and different treatments.

Colon cancer is usually treated first with surgery. Many rectal cancers are treated first with radiation and/or chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery.

Surgery for rectal cancer is technically more difficult than surgery for colon cancer and patients are often referred to specialists in colorectal surgery in larger medical centers, while colon cancer surgery is routinely performed by general surgeons in community hospitals.

It is common for individuals with either type of cancer to experience changes in their digestion and to have similar psychosocial concerns. Simply knowing which foods others have found easy to digest is incredibly helpful. That’s why they often meet together in support groups, including one at the Cancer Resource Center that meets the first Tuesday of each month from 5:30 – 7:00.

Question: How can I help a friend with cancer?
Answer: One of the best things you can do is to send them a card. 

During a panel discussion several years ago, Beth Brunelle, a dear friend of CRC who died from cancer last year, said, “Although it might sound simple or trite, I love getting cards. My mailbox is full of medical bills. Getting a card makes me smile.” 

Email can be effective in transmitting information, but it’s not good at conveying kindness and warmth. Nor does it have a long shelf-life. Even a beautifully worded email tends to get buried in an electronic mailbox within a few minutes.

One of our favorite programs at the Cancer Resource Center is a simple one: We provide greeting cards and postage stamps to students from Ithaca College and Cornell University who volunteer by writing notes of encouragement to individuals in our community who have been affected by cancer. Some students write about their own lives, but mostly say in one way or another, “I’m thinking of you.”

Cancer is a very high-tech disease in terms of diagnosis and treatment. But helping a friend with cancer can be pleasantly low-tech. Send a card. You’ll make a person smile.

Question: I sometimes hear cancer survivors talk about the “new normal.” What is this?

Answer: “The new normal” is a phrase used to describe how life changes for some people who have been through cancer.

Here are some examples:

  • A man treated for oral cancer who can no longer taste many foods.
  • A woman treated for breast cancer whose arm is permanently swollen.
  • A man treated for colorectal cancer who needs to use the bathroom frequently because of the surgery on his gastrointestinal tract.

In all of these situations, the cancers were likely cured, but their lives were changed.

Most people are remarkably resilient. As we often hear, “You just learn to deal.”

Although we learn to deal, we also acknowledge the losses, especially when we get outside of our normal routines. Perhaps it’s at a special family dinner when you can’t taste the food you loved growing up. Or you can’t wear that sleeveless dress to a fancy event. Or your travel plans require an awareness of public restrooms along the route.

When one of us does complain, it’s typically prefaced by saying, “I feel guilty complaining because my cancer is gone. But I’m really ticked that I can’t…”

There can also be a lengthy period of recovery during which the person isn’t sure what the new normal will be. People often ask themselves and their doctors, “Is this as good as it’s going to get?”

Adjusting to the new normal following cancer is rarely a smooth process. Each person does it on their own terms and on their own schedule. Even when cancer is in the past, it’s never completely in the past for many of us. That’s why cancer support groups are so valuable. We help each other adjust to the new normal.


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