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How pre-cancer is detected and what to do if it’s found

Key takeaways:

  • A regular cancer screening is recommended to monitor any changes in pre-cancer.
  • Pre-cancerous cells may never turn into cancer cells.
  • Pre-cancer cells mean you may be at a higher risk of cancer.

Being diagnosed with pre-cancer does not mean you have cancer. It just means that you may be at higher risk of cancer than someone without pre-cancer cells.

You always remember the day you first see the worrisome lump on the skins that look like warts. Or the mole with an unusual, non-symmetrical shape, or the polyps that your doctor found in your vagina during the latest colposcopy. In the back of your mind, it’s hard not to wonder whether these are pre-cancer.

But even if these are precancerous cells, active health surveillance may prevent any potential complications. If you have precancerous lesions, you have an increased risk of developing cancer, and you should take the necessary measures to prevent it. 

In this article, we’ll explain what pre-cancer is, what the most common precancerous conditions are, and when you should worry about pre-cancer.

What are pre-cancer cells?

Cells are always growing, aging, and dying. We have about 200 different types of cells that make up our body. These normal cells go through their life cycles with a highly regulated process that allows healthy cooperation between adjacent cells.

Once a cell is damaged or is too old to function properly, it undergoes apoptosis, or a controlled cell death. The neighboring cell begins to proliferate to replace the missing cell.

During proliferation, the DNA of the cell is duplicated to give two identical cells. However, sometimes the replication machinery makes errors. The newly formed DNA carries mutations that can be permanent if not repaired. Some of these abnormal cells can be pre-cancer cells.

When a mutation occurs on a gene coding for the shape, the cell will end up misshapen. If the mutation occurred on genes coding for pigmentation, the cell displays an unusual color.

Interestingly, these abnormal cells escape to their controlled death and continue proliferating. Ultimately, they will form noticeable entities like misshaped and discolored moles or small polyps in the cervix and the colon, for example. 

Will my pre-cancer cells turn into cancer?

Let’s say during a routine check-up, your doctor told you they found precancerous lesions or carcinoma in situ, the earliest form of cancer. Anxiety most certainly heightens at the terms “cancer” and “carcinoma.” It is completely understandable.

But, in this case, the term “pre-cancer” does not mean you have cancer. It does mean that you need to be on the lookout for any changes. For skin cancer, you should check your skin in front of a mirror once a month, and get a yearly dermatology appointment for a thorough assessment.

Very few abnormal cells will turn into cancer cells, and nobody can tell for sure if these lesions will change over time. Actually, most will stay benign all your life.

Even if the abnormal cells become malignant, the good news is that thanks to regular checkups, cancer can be detected at a very early stage, and, if it’s detected, treatment options exist, and they work. The five-year survival rate for early-stage cancer is over 80%.

What are the most common precancerous conditions?

Woman with pre-cancer melanoma

There are many precancerous conditions to be aware of:

  • Colon polyps are a tiny clump of cells located in the lining of your colon. Polyps are usually benign and won’t cause any symptoms, but some can evolve into colorectal cancer. Because of their asymptomatic nature, colon polyps put you at a higher risk of developing colon cancer. Having a regular screening test like a colonoscopy is important for monitoring colon polyps, especially after age 50.
  • Polyps in the cervix: Like in the colon, small clumps of cells could develop in the channel that connects the vagina to the uterus. Even if most cervical polyps are harmless, some could turn into cervical cancer. When your gynecologist finds a polyp during your routine pelvic exam, they usually perform a Pap test, or smear, to ensure it is not related to the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV). Also, in most circumstances, the polyp is removed by biopsy and sent to a lab for analysis. 
  • Actinic keratosis (AK) occurs when dry and scaly patches of skin appear after long exposure to direct sun. This precancerous condition could progress and turn into skin cancer like squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This is why dermatologists recommend using sunscreen when going outside. A regular check-up of your skin is also recommended and could save your life. Untreated SCC can become invasive cancer and therefore extremely difficult to remove. When detected early enough, AK can be removed by cryotherapy or topical surgery. Your doctor will send the biopsy to a pathologist for confirmation.
  • Dysplastic or atypical moles are large and irregularly-shaped moles that increase the risk of melanoma. About 50% of people who develop melanoma have atypical moles on their body.
  • Breast lumps, or atypical breast hyperplasia, are seen on screening mammograms. The cause is unknown. Only one of 12 lumps may develop into breast cancer. Also, out of 100 women diagnosed with atypical hyperplasia, 93 will not develop any breast cancer in five years. Here too, getting a regular screening is essential to catch any potential cancer on time to be fully cured.
  • Barret’s esophagus, a change in your food pipe’s lining, is believed to be caused by gastric reflux and could lead to esophageal cancer. A regular endoscopy of your food pipe is crucial for monitoring any changes. If you have been diagnosed with Barret’s esophagus, you may need to adjust your diet.
  • Bronchial epithelial dysplasia is abnormal cells in the lung that could cause lung cancer. The major risk factor is tobacco smoke exposure.
  • Atrophic gastritis involves pre-cancerous changes due to chronic inflammation in your stomach that could lead to gastric cancer. The cause is mainly due to bacterial infections, especially those caused by H. Pylori. The bacteria alters the lining of your stomach, which becomes vulnerable to the acidic environment. One of the easiest ways to prevent this infection is to wash your hands regularly, particularly after going to the bathroom and before handling food.

Cancer prevention is key.

Doctor examining possible melanoma

Generally speaking, your doctor will make an educated guess to determine whether precancerous lesions may develop into cancer. Your doctor will consider several factors, including family history, body mass index, and tobacco use, to evaluate your risk of cancer. 

At Ezra, we have created a five-minute questionnaire to assess your cancer risk factors. If you decide to be proactive about your health, Ezra offers several cancer screening solutions using imaging techniques such as MRI and low-dose CT.

The Ezra full-body MRI screens a total of 14 organs for cancer in less than 60 minutes. This technique is safe, painless, and affordable.

With the Ezra Full Body Plus package, an additional five-minute low-dose CT imaging exam of your chest will be performed. This package is especially valuable for detecting head, neck, chest, abdomen, and pelvic cancer. Make an appointment today.