Dear Dr. Roach: I recently was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and my wife is now getting treatment for breast cancer. Would cooking on a nonstick skillet have caused the cancers? My wife was using one for quite some time, but not anymore.
When someone is diagnosed with any serious disease, but especially with cancer, it is a human trait to think back on possible causes.
We want to have as much control over our fate as possible. However, most cases of cancer occur without a specific risk (smoking cigarettes is the biggest exception to this).
Cancer happens, among other reasons, when there is an error in replicating DNA, when we are hit by natural radiation or when something in our environment damages our DNA. There certainly are behaviours we can do to reduce cancer risk, but there is no way to entirely prevent cancer from occurring.
In the case of nonstick cookware, there is no increased risk. Workers who make nonstick coatings for pans or clothing are potentially at risk due to a chemical used in manufacturing called PFOA, but there is none of this (probably) carcinogenic chemical in the final product. Overheating a nonstick-coated pan can cause irritating, but not cancer-causing, chemical fumes.
Dear Dr. Roach: I have a question that I’d love to see answered in your column. My husband recently had major surgery. Before the surgery, they asked if he has ever smoked. (Husband is 77.) He answered that when he was nine, he smoked a cigarette. He is now in the computer as an ex-smoker, and the nurse told us she is “required by law” to provide him with information on quitting.
When physicians ask: “Have you ever smoked?” do they really want to hear about one cigarette, smoked almost 70 years ago? Is this meaningful information, in medical terms?
There are very important reasons to know a person’s smoking history, especially when someone is about to undergo surgery. Current smokers should know that quitting well before surgery can reduce risks of surgical complications. The anesthesiologist can be extra-vigilant for breathing issues. Some of these points are valid for ex-smokers who have recently quit or who were very heavy smokers.
Of course, one cigarette at age nine is meaningless, and anytime I hear “required by law” I wonder if it’s really true. In this case, I doubt it: Why give ex-smokers information on quitting? It makes no sense.
Primary-care providers like me ask about smoking because a significant history of smoking increases heart disease risk, so I might be more likely to recommend treatment to reduce that risk (for example, in a person with elevated blood pressure or cholesterol who otherwise doesn’t quite meet criteria for drug treatment). Also, people who smoked more than 1 pack per day for 30 years, or the equivalent, should have a discussion about whether screening for lung cancer is appropriate.
Finally, it’s easier to answer if you have never been a smoker. Some people who smoke socially don’t consider themselves smokers, but would still benefit from advice to stop.
Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.