Most cancers start with abnormal cells growing out of control. Sometimes you will experience symptoms, but often you will not. That is why regular screening and self-examinations are so important. Finding and treating cancer in its earlier stages is much easier, and potentially life-saving, than waiting until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Every year cancer claims the lives of more than 500,000 men and women in the United States. Fortunately, the survival rates for all cancers are improving – 66 percent for cancer cases diagnosed between 1996 and 2002, compared to 51 percent for cases between 1975 and 1977 – due in large part to earlier diagnosis and better treatments. Another positive trend in cancer research suggests that approximately two-thirds of cancer deaths could potentially be prevented through lifestyle changes, vaccines or antibiotics.
Screening tests are available for many forms of cancer, including colorectal, breast, cervical and prostate. Both men and women are encouraged to undergo colorectal cancer tests beginning at age 50 (or earlier if they have risk factors for developing the disease). Screening tests for colorectal cancer include:
- Fecal occult blood test, which tests for blood in the stool
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy, which allows the doctor to check the rectum and lower part of the colon
- Double-contrast barium enema, which uses an X-ray to find abnormal spots
- Colonoscopy, which allows the doctor to examine the entire colon
Women should begin performing a breast self-exam in their 20s, add a clinical breast exam in their 30s, and start having a mammogram at age 40 to help find breast cancer early. The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Approximately three-fourths of new cases are in women over the age of 50.
Another screening recommended for women is a Pap test to detect pre-cancerous cells in the cervix or cervical cancer. The test should be done at least every three years, even after menopause. Treatment is available to prevent cervical cancer from developing or when it is found early.
Men can be screened for prostate cancer as early as age 40 if they are at high risk for developing the disease. Having a first-degree relative with prostate cancer or being African-American may increase a man’s chances of having prostate cancer. Screening for the condition may include a digital rectal exam or a prostate-specific antigen blood test. Men also are encouraged to examine their testicles on a routine basis to check for testicular cancer. Any lump or swelling should be reported to a physician as soon as possible. Testicular cancer is not common, but it is one of the most treatable forms of cancer.
Screening recommendations can vary for different cancers and depend on the patient’s medical history, family history and lifestyle. Doctors may advise patients to be screened regularly or at a younger age if they are inactive, use tobacco products, drink alcohol or eat a high-fat diet.
For more information about cancer screenings, talk with your doctor or call 1-800-681-2733 for a free referral to a specialist near you.