What is cancer screening?
Cancer screening is done when a person feels healthy. The goal of cancer screening is to find those cancers that can be found as early as possible, before a person has any symptoms.
Different tests can be used to screen for different types of cancers. The age at which screening starts varies depending on the type of cancer being screened for. That’s because different cancers tend to strike at different times in a person’s life.
Why should I have cancer screening?
Cancer that is found early often is small and can sometimes be cured or treated easily. Treating certain cancers early can help people live longer. Sometimes, screening finds cells that do not yet show cancer, but that might turn into cancer cells. Doctors often treat this “pre-cancer” before it has a chance to become cancer.
Does everyone have the same cancer screening?
No. Not everyone is screened for the same types of cancer. And not everyone begins cancer screening at the same age. For example, people with a family history of certain cancers might begin screening at a younger age than people without a family history. People might have repeat screening tests at different times, too. Ask your doctor or nurse:
Which cancers should I be screened for?
Do I have a choice about screening tests?
At what age should I begin cancer screening?
How often should I be screened?
Does an abnormal screening test result mean that I have cancer?
Not always. An abnormal screening test result means that you might have cancer. It does not mean that you definitely have cancer. If you have an abnormal result, your doctor or nurse will probably need to do other tests to find out for sure if anything is wrong. Try not to worry about having cancer until you follow up with your doctor or nurse.
Which cancers can people be screened for?
Some of the types of cancer for which screening tests are available are:
- Breast cancer – The main test used to screen for breast cancer is called a “mammogram.” Doctors do not always agree about when women should start having mammograms. But most women start around age 40 or 50. Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer might begin screening earlier. Work with your doctor or nurse to decide when to start breast cancer screening and at what age you might stop screening.
- Colon cancer – There are 5 or 6 screening tests for colon cancer. The choice of which test to have is up to you and your doctor. Doctors recommend that most people begin having colon cancer screening at age 50. Some people have an increased chance of getting colon cancer, because of a strong family history or certain medical conditions. These people might begin screening at a younger age.
- Cervical cancer – The main test used to screen for cervical cancer is called a “Pap smear.” Cervical cancer screening often begins when a woman turns 21. Doctors might add on another screening test after a woman turns 30. Women who are older than 65 might not need to continue cervical cancer screening. If you are older than 65, talk with your doctor about whether or not you should keep getting screened.
- Lung cancer – The main test used to screen for lung cancer is a special kind of x-ray called a “low dose CT scan.” If you are at high risk of lung cancer, for example because you smoke, ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of screening. But if you really want to reduce your chances of getting or dying from lung cancer, the best thing you can do is to stop smoking.
- Ovarian cancer – To screen for ovarian cancer, doctors can do a blood test, an imaging test called an ultrasound, or both. But these tests are not very accurate. Still, the tests are sometimes used in women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. For them, screening might begin at age 30 to 35.
Dr. Pinky Ronen, M.D.
950 Threadneedle, Suite 282
Houston, Texas 77079
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