What You Need to Know About Screening for Cancer

November 19, 2021
What You Need to Know About Screening for Cancer

Written by Lindsay Modglin


Cancer Screening: What to Know

Cancer screening can help detect cancer before it causes symptoms, giving you the best chance of successful treatment. While screening tests aren’t always perfect, they can potentially help improve outcomes and save lives, especially when done early. 

What is Cancer Screening?

Cancer screening is a test or series of tests aimed at detecting cancer before you develop symptoms. Some cancers don’t cause symptoms until advanced stages, so it's best to get screened even if you feel healthy. By the time a lump or other indicator develops, the cancer may be late-stage and harder to treat.

For most types of cancers, early detection greatly improves the chances of successful treatment. Even if you're not at high risk, starting regular screening tests at an earlier age may help detect some types of cancer before they spread to other areas of the body.

Type of Cancer Screenings

There are several tests involved in the screening process. The type of test your healthcare provider may recommend depends on several factors including:

  • Your age and overall health
  • Personal preferences
  • Whether or not you have signs of cancer
  • Your family history of cancer

Your gender and race can also play a part in your overall risk of developing certain cancers at some point in your life. Some cancers have a higher prevalence in certain populations or require screening at a younger age than others. Some cancers are linked, so having a history of one type of cancer can also increase your risk of developing other cancers in the future.

General Cancer Screenings

Physical Exam and Medical History

Your doctor will perform a physical exam to check for any signs of cancer. They may press on certain areas of the body to check for lumps or knots. A thorough medical history is also important, especially if you have a family history of cancer or are a survivor yourself. You’ll be asked questions about any current or previous health conditions, medications, and lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, tobacco use).

Laboratory Tests

Blood and urine tests are standard screening tools. For example, a blood test can show if your red and white blood cell counts are normal or not, which could indicate a problem.

Your healthcare provider might also order a urine test to look for irregularities. These tests are often part of an annual physical exam and are nothing to worry about. In some cases, a stool sample may also be sent to a lab to look for signs of blood or disease.

Imaging Studies

Depending on the type of cancer you’re being screened for, your healthcare provider might order imaging studies. Imaging tests can show tumors in your body or assess the size of a tumor that's already there.

Common imaging tests include:

  • X-Ray: An x-ray is sometimes done as part of a regular physical exam. It's quick and painless, but it only works for cancers that are near the surface of the body (like lung and breast cancer). X-rays may also reveal tumors in bones.
  • CT: If your doctor is concerned about a specific area in your body, they may order a computed tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan creates images of your body that can show tumors or other abnormalities not clearly seen on an x-ray.
  • MRI: Similar to a CT scan, your doctor may order advanced imaging like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Some cancers can be detected with MRI before symptoms occur. 
  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the inside of your body. It's a good tool for checking organs and other areas that can't be seen as easily with x-rays or CT scans. Sometimes it may be used in conjunction with MRI.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan: A PET scan is an imaging test that can help locate areas of cancer in the body. These are often part of the diagnosis process and can help determine whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Mammogram: A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. It can help detect early signs of breast cancer when it's most treatable. If your doctor recommends a mammogram, you should follow their advice and be screened regularly.

Other Screening Tests

  • Pap Test: A Pap test is a pelvic exam and Pap smear. It can detect cervical cancer early, which reduces your chances of developing advanced-stage cancer. This is especially important if you're sexually active, as cervical cancer develops in women who have had sexual relationships.
  • Skin exams: Skin cancer is very common. Regular skin exams can help detect certain types of skin cancers that are easily treated if detected early.
  • Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) Test: A PSA test measures the amount of Prostate-Specific Antigen in your blood, which can be an indicator of prostate cancer.
  • Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is a test that allows your doctor to look inside the colon and rectum using a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera at one end. It can be used to detect colorectal cancer early on.
  • Genetic testing: If you have a family history of certain cancers or other high-risk factors, your doctor might use genetic testing to determine if you have an inherited mutation that increases your risk of cancer. This test can help identify people who should take more aggressive measures to detect and prevent cancer.

What To Expect From a Cancer Screening Test

Cancer screenings can be stressful, but they can help detect early signs of disease. If your doctor recommends being screened, it's important not to skip the appointment. If you have a family history of cancer or other risk factors, discuss your options with your care team so you can make an informed decision about which screenings are right for you.

Depending on the type of screening test you need, there may be some preparation involved. Some tests may be carried out at your regular appointment, while others may require going to a nearby hospital or outpatient center.

How Often Should I Be Screened for Cancer?

This depends on your doctor's recommendations, which can vary based on your personal health history and risk factors. 

If you’re healthy and have no family history of any cancers, you might not need to be screened beyond your regular checkups. Some cancers, like cervical and breast, may have specific guidelines regarding how often they should be checked—even without any risk factors. Women 25 years and older should have a pap test or a primary HPV test every three to five years. 

Starting at age 45, women should have an annual mammogram to screen for breast cancer. Men should also begin regular screening for prostate cancer starting at age 45, or earlier if they have a family history of this disease.

If you’ve had cancer in the past, your oncologist will recommend a screening schedule based on your risk of developing other cancers. Some cancer treatments can increase your risk of future cancers. For this reason, it’s important to stay on top of your screenings.

Where Can I Find More Resources for Cancer Screening?

To learn more about cancer screening guidelines, check out the resources below:

Make Screening a Priority

There are many different types of cancer, as well as several ways to detect them early on. If you're over the age of 40, it's important to be screened for some cancers or risk factors that increase your chances of developing cancer. 

If cancer is detected early enough, it can be treated more successfully. It's important to discuss your options with your care team so you can make the best decisions for your future.

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