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Worried about cancer? Here’s why you should always see your primary care doctor first.
larry anderson
Dr. Larry Anderson of Anderson Family Medicine in Dawsonville. - photo by Jessica Taylor

When it comes to cancer, your primary care doctor is often the best place to start with prevention and detection.

Cancer isn’t uncommon for Dr. Larry Anderson and the staff of Anderson Family Medicine in Dawsonville. But what exactly is it?

“It’s like art. You know it when you see it, but to get down on a molecular diagnosis of it, it’s abnormal cells that can lead to death or destruction of tissue,” Anderson said.

It’s a blanket term for abnormal cells that divide and multiply and can spread to other parts of the body, but cancer can be found in organs, bones and blood.  

“There are a lot of different cancers out there. Some are very obvious, and some may take a very long time to grow. You have to think of a cancer cell as one cell that kind of goes amuck, divides; now you’ve got two bad cells and then those cells have to divide,” Anderson said. “Some say if we diagnose your cancer today, you’ve actually had it for four or five years, but it was just too small to be able to identify.”

Some cancers are more obvious to detect with the naked eye. New skin lesions that appear can be signs of skin cancer. Unusual lumps in the breast tissue can be a sign of breast cancer. Trouble swallowing or indigestion could be a sign of thyroid or esophageal cancers.

And your primary care or family doctor can be the first to distinguish if something is benign or cancerous, Anderson said.

“Sometimes it does require additional testing, and when we find an area that’s suspicious and requires additional testing, we usually can choose the appropriate subspecialist on the first go-round,” Anderson continued.

As a family medicine physician, Anderson says it’s like being “the captain of the ship” because a primary care doctor helps make the decision and coordinates the next steps. Sometimes that means sending a patient to have imaging done, lab work or consulting with a surgeon. It all depends on the type of suspected cancer and the patient. 

Of course, it’s not always as easy as having your primary care doctor give you a physical exam; it’s about knowing which tests or screenings will help find what the doctor suspects.

“All of our imaging, all of our testing, everything that we have has limitations,” Anderson said. “There is no one good test that either covers everything or no one good test that covers a specific cancer. You have to look at a lot of different things.”

A family medicine physician has an advantage in that they typically know more about their patients’ histories and can factor in environmental exposures that may put patients more at risk for certain types of cancer, according to Anderson.

In Anderson’s practice, his most prevalent cancers detected are prostate, colon and rectal cancers, which can be detected by digital rectal exams. An enlarged prostate, nodules or polyps in the colon or rectum can all be signs of cancerous growths.

Getting a rectal exam as recommended by your primary care doctor can help catch or prevent cancer from spreading.  According to Anderson, colon cancer is one of the most elusive types of cancer to catch because often times the patient doesn’t exhibit symptoms until the cancer has advanced, something that could be checked simply by regular rectal exams or a colonoscopy.

“It’s one of the reasons why you can have some aggressive surgery to take care of colon cancer,” Anderson said.  “If you get your colonoscopy and catch it very, very early, it’s just sometimes a simple matter of removing that cancerous polyp or going in and just taking a small section out so you don’t get the colostomy.”

It’s much easier to cure and to treat a cancerous growth if it’s caught early, Anderson said.

Preventative measures can also be taken outside of the doctor’s office. Anderson recommends controlling alcohol and caffeine intake which can help your pancreas. Being mindful of what is being put into your lungs such as tobacco, vape juices, fumes and smoke from burning fires, paying attention to the amount of fiber you’re putting in your diet and always using sunscreen to block radiation can also help protect you from cancers.

Anderson also says it’s important to take your medicines like you’re supposed to when it comes to cancer prevention. 

“If you have concerns or you feel your body is bringing its attention to you, go see your primary care doctor,” said Anderson. “In general you should not really be ever aware of your body doing anything, and when you become aware that a body function is not working right, that’s the time you need to make an inquiry.”