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What if we could see inside our own organs? - (2/25/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 
 
Ann came into the pharmacy and said to the pharmacist, “Did you hear about Freddy? The doctor found lung cancer. He didn’t have any symptoms. But he could kick himself for having smoked cigarettes for the last 35 years. His wife warned him constantly!”  
 
Freddy is lucky, the pharmacist told Ann. The symptoms of advanced lung cancer – bloody coughs, weight loss, chest pain, to name a few – typically do not emerge until the patient is in late-stage. Today, clinicians can screen asymptomatic, high-risk patients (e.g., smokers) with a low-dose computed tomography scan (CT scan), an imaging test used to detect lung cancer at an early stage and reduce the chance of dying from the disease. Considering that lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death for men and women, Freddy was fortunate that his doctor took a routine imaging test to see if his lungs were clear. They were not. Freddy will ultimately recover because his clinician caught his disease early, and chemotherapy will aptly eradicate it. If you have ever seen the lungs of a heavy smoker who died of advanced lung cancer, you will think you are seeing a pot roast that was left in the oven way too long.  
 
Question: What if Freddy could see right into his lungs? If that was possible, he might have been shocked enough to quit smoking early on. Would we all take better care of our bodies if we could visualize trouble before it overtakes us? Let’s look at our liver. Many people enjoy a cocktail or two. However, when you overdo it, what happens? You have seen liver in the meat section of the market. That deep red color is healthy. But eating cholesterol packed foods and washing them down with liquor can change that look. Over time, the now enlarged liver turns yellow and slimy. If you could see this change, you may be able to do something before it turns into hepatitis or cirrhosis.  
 
The average human colon is about 5 feet long and 3 inches wide. Much activity occurs throughout that cylindrical space because our bodies need regular nourishment. If you could travel through the gut, you may be able to see any polyps or tumors have attached themselves to the walls on the colon. Conversely, many people kick and scream before they get a colonoscopy. If you do not like the hospital, then the home tests for colon cancer (e.g., Cologuard®) will identify any unusual changes in the bowel. Even as easy as the at-home tests are, people still will shun them (“I have no family history of colon cancer,” one might hear.) Meanwhile, that tumor is growing, pushing the person into late-stage colon or rectal cancer.   
 
The heart keeps everything in the body moving along. It feeds the cells with blood, oxygen, and nutrients to keep one vertical instead of horizontal in a grave. Over time, depending on one’s diet and exercise level, fats and calcium can clog the arteries in the heart. Before you know it, you are having a heart attack while driving 70 mph on the highway, an event that often does not end well. If you could physically skate through the arteries and see the buildup of plaques and other gunk, then you could correct it before it is too late.  
 
In 1965, Hollywood released a science fiction film called Fantastic Voyage. The movie was about a submarine crew that shrinks to microscopic size and travels into the body of an injured scientist to fix his damaged brain. If only we could actually do that! Yet, we cannot accomplish such a feat. In the meantime, get all your screenings done regularly. You do not want to hear your doctor lament that she “wished we could have caught this sooner.”  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com.                                                                                                                                                   
 


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