Ask the Experts: What Does “High Risk” Mean for Common Cancers?

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Learn what it means to be "at risk" for certain types of cancer


Maureen Chung, MD, PhD, Surgical Oncologist and Medical Director of the Southcoast Breast Program

Who is at high risk? To determine a patient’s lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, we use an assessment that takes into account age, family history and personal medical history, including the results of past biopsies and in some cases, genetic testing. If your lifetime risk is found to be greater than 20 percent based on this assessment, you are considered to be at high risk.

What’s my next step as a high-risk patient? A review of your unique medical history will help your doctors recommend a personalized screening schedule that’s designed to catch cancer at the earliest stages and increase the chance of a successful treatment outcome. The Southcoast Breast Program offers a supportive, welcoming place for patients and their referring physicians to ask any and all questions about breast cancer risk and prevention, including education on how healthy lifestyles can lessen risk.

Why choose Southcoast for my screenings? Patients benefit from the convenience of our 12 digital mammography sites and three advanced diagnostic locations. When an abnormality is found, a nurse navigator guides the patient through the diagnostic process, and we work as a team to alleviate anxiety by shortening the intervals between appointments and learning test results. If cancer treatment is necessary, Southcoast offers the full spectrum of care, including specialized surgery.


Victor Pricolo, MD, Chief of General & Colorectal Surgery

Who is at high risk? Those at high risk of colon cancer include people with a first-degree relative or more than one relative with colorectal cancer. Other patients at high risk may include those who are found to have colon polyps (abnormal growths), who have genetic mutations leading to hereditary polyps syndromes, have polyps that test positive for cancer or have other health conditions that raise risk, such as inflammatory bowel disease.

What’s my next step as a high-risk patient? Colorectal cancer is unique in that it is completely preventable by removing precancerous lesions (or polyps) in the colon or rectum at the time of colonoscopy. Those with a first-degree relative or more than one relative with colorectal cancer should begin screening by age 40, or 10 years before the age of the relative’s diagnosis, if that comes first. Unique screening guidelines may be advised for patients who have additional risk factors.

Why choose Southcoast for my screenings? At Southcoast, high-risk patients can receive second-to-none colorectal cancer preventive care and treatment. This includes dietary education, preventive screening, diagnosis, and when necessary, the entire spectrum of specialized colorectal cancer treatment including minimally invasive surgery. Our patients also benefit from the practical advantages of access, availability and excellence close to home.


Dennis LaRock, MD, co-Chief of Urology and Chief of Robotic Surgery

Who is at high risk? African-American men and men who have a first-degree relative on the father’s side with prostate cancer are considered to be at high risk.

What’s my next step as a high-risk patient? Men who are at high risk for prostate cancer should have a conversation with their doctor about screening, which includes a rectal exam and a PSA blood test. Recommendations may vary, because prostate cancer does not always require intervention, and there are different opinions on who needs to be screened and when. Many doctors will perform a baseline screening for high-risk men starting in their 40s and start regular screenings when the patient turns 50.

Why choose Southcoast for my screenings? At Southcoast, our board certified urology specialists have the advantage of experience, which helps us pick up on abnormalities during the physical exam and provide knowledgeable counsel about follow-up screenings and care. Some men who are diagnosed with cancer will go into what is called an active surveillance program, meaning that they are screened regularly to check for physical changes or symptoms. Some will never require treatment, but when intervention is necessary, Southcoast provides the full range of expert care, including specialists in minimally invasive robotic surgery, open surgery, perineal surgery and radiation therapy, including prostate brachytherapy, which precisely targets cancer cells while avoiding healthy tissue.

To learn more about cancer care, visit Southcoast Centers for Cancer Care.