In the coming year, more than 1 million cases of invasive cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. -- with African Americans accounting for a disproportionate number of these cancers. For people between the ages of 35 and 50, the most common types of cancer are breast and colorectal for women, prostate and lung for men.
The word cancer has the ability to trigger an emotional reaction in a person, conjuring up words such as treatment, surgery and chemotherapy. But there is one word that cancer surgeon Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. said should be no longer automatically associated with cancer: death.
"One of the challenges with diagnosing and treating cancer in inner cities is that many people believe once they have cancer, they've been given a death sentence. There is no truth to this," said Leffall, who has taught more than 4,500 medical students in the 44 years he has been on faculty at Howard University College of Medicine. "They believe they're not going to be cured, so they don't see a reason to try."
Leffall has devoted his professional life to the study of cancer. As the first African American president of the American Cancer Society (ACS), he launched a program in 1979 that studied increasing incidence and mortality of cancer in African Americans. A critical factor to being cured, he determined, is understanding symptoms and getting access to quality care.
He uses CAUTION to spell out common cancer warning signs: Change in bowel or bladder habits; A sore that does not heal; Unusual bleeding or discharge; Thickening or a lump in the breast or elsewhere; Indigestion that is persistent; Obvious change in a wart or mole; and Nagging cough or hoarseness.
Preventive actions can be taken to reduce the risk of most cancers, said Leffall. For example, moderating alcohol intake can help prevent esophageal cancer. Quitting smoking
significantly decreases the chances of developing lung cancer. Colonoscopies can detect polyps that could result in colon cancer. Mammograms can show lesions that could lead to breast cancer.
As chairman of both the President's Cancer Panel and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Leffall is working toward making care more accessible by challenging convention and initiating change.
"Without health, nothing in life means anything," said Leffall, who enjoys reading and listening to modern jazz. "I try to use all the resources available to me to address health disparities. I keep an open mind and always strive for excellence."