A Brief Guide to Cancer Screening

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1 in 3 people will have cancer in their lifetime, according to data collected by the CDC. That means the average person has a 33% chance of developing cancer, with risk increasing as they get older.

Since cancer is such a widespread disease, you may consider doing a cancer screening test if you’re at risk of developing cancer due to age, genetics, or exposure to cancer causing chemicals or radiation.

Cancer screening can detect cancer in its early stages before it causes any symptoms, when treatment is generally more effective and less invasive.

What is a Screening Test for Cancer?

A cancer screening is a test that aims to detect cancer early, when the disease has not progressed too far and is easier to treat.

Cancer is a disease in which genetic mutations cause cells to multiply at a rapid, abnormal pace. These malfunctioning cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body and destroy tissues. In some cases, cancer may be present for months or years before it causes symptoms, which makes a cancer screening all the more important.

There’s no cancer screening that can detect all forms of cancer. Instead, a patient will usually screen for a specific type of cancer they’re more at risk of developing. For example, women who are at higher risk of developing breast cancer (ages 40 to 69, or with a family history of breast cancer) are encouraged to screen for cancer via mammograms.

One of the main purposes of cancer awareness month is to raise awareness of and encourage cancer screenings because they’re so crucial in minimizing the impact of the disease and saving lives.

What Are the Most Common Cancer Screenings?

There are a few types of cancer screenings that are very common due to the prevalence of the cancer and the accuracy of the testing:

  • Breast Cancer: Mammograms are used to screen for breast cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends women receive a mammogram every other year starting from the age 50 until 74 years old and for those 40 to 49 should consider getting them every other year based on their family history of breast cancer. Other organizations recommend women 40 and 44 be given the option to start screening with a mammogram yearly, those 45 to 54 get one annually, and those 55 and older can switch to every other year.
  • Prostate Cancer: Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is a type of screening that can detect prostate cancer in men. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that it is an individual’s decision to screen for prostate cancer between the ages of 55 and 69 years old. Other organizations recommend to start screening at age 50 for the average man or age 45 in those that are high risk including those with a first-degree relative who had prostate cancer at a young age or are African American.
  • Lung Cancer: Lung cancer can be detected through a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan. Experts generally advise lung cancer screenings annually for adults aged 50 to 80 who have a 20 pack-year history of smoking, and either currently smoke or have quit smoking within the past 15 years. Pack-year can be calculated based on the number packs you smoke(d) per day, on average, times the number of years.
  • Colorectal Cancer: A colonoscopy is used to detect colorectal cancer and there are also three FDA-approved stool (poop) tests. Experts advise men and women to begin screening for colorectal cancer at age 45 until age 75. From ages 76 to 85, it is an individual’s choice to screen or not.  Screenings are especially important for colorectal cancer because the disease often does not cause symptoms until its advanced stages.
  • Cervical Cancer: Doctors use pap tests to screen for cervical cancer in women. Experts generally advise women to begin screening at age 21 and complete these every threeyears until 65 years old.

This is not a comprehensive list of cancer screenings. There are many other types of cancer you may be at risk for, which may have different screening methods. Your doctor can provide you with more insight into your cancer risk and advise you on which types of cancer you may want to screen for.

Why Are Cancer Screenings Important?

Cancer screenings can detect cancer in its early stages before symptoms have even begun. The disease is more treatable in its early stages before it has  spread to other parts of  the body. Early detection has been linked with significantly higher rates of recovery and survival.

While cancer screenings do not prevent cancer, they can spur early treatment that prevents the cancer from advancing and becoming more deadly. Cancer screenings can save lives.

Is a Cancer Test Right for Me?

For most people, it may be a clear and obvious choice to screen for cancer. Although screening tests sometimes result in false-positives and false-negatives, the benefits of a cancer screening often outweigh the risks. However the decision may become more complicated the older that you get.

Typically, cancer becomes more difficult to treat the older a person gets, and 70% of cancer deaths occur in people ages 65 and older. Cancer treatment can be significantly more painful and invasive for elderly patients, which may cause some patients to forgo cancer treatment entirely in favor of treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms and making life more tolerable.

Elderly patients who would not wish to undergo cancer treatment may prefer not to do a cancer screening, even if they’re high-risk or experiencing noticeable cancer symptoms. This decision often invokes a “better not to know” mindset that’s aimed at maintaining mental health.

It’s helpful to begin preparing for these types of health care decisions far in advance. End-of-life planning is advisable for any person entering the later stages of life, even healthy people who are expected to live for many more years. Important choices will be arranged, like creating medical directives, assigning a health care power of attorney, and even choosing whether or not to have a cancer screening past a certain age.

How to Get Screened for Cancer

Make an appointment with your doctor and speak with them about your cancer risk. Your doctor can set up a cancer screening for you.

Fighting Cancer

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all cancer cure or treatment. However, medical researchers are hard at work testing new treatment methods and medications. You can support cancer research by making a donation to the Gateway for Cancer Research. We fund clinical trials that test new cancer treatments that help researchers move closer to discovering a cure.

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