The 4 Most Popular Cancer Screening Tests: What They Are and How They Can Help You Live Longer
Did you know that, according to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year? And unfortunately, of these, more than 580,000 will die as a result.
Clearly, cancers of all types are a big problem, not only in the U.S., but all around the world as well. While many of the most prominent cancers (e.g. lung, skin, etc.) are highly preventable, there is also a high survival rate among patients who were diagnosed early, which provides adequate time to treat the cancer before it spreads to other parts of the body.
Because of this, we here at Advanced Family Medicine are often asked by patients if we can perform cancer screenings, which we thought would make a great topic for a blog post. So let’s take a look at some of the most common cancer screening tests, and find out how they can help.
What Kind of Cancer Screenings are Available?
The unfortunate truth is that most cancers begin silently, and often don’t result in any symptoms until later stages, at which point the chance of survival decreases significantly. As you’d imagine, this means that overall prognosis and life expectancy fully depends on how early the cancer was diagnosed, and how soon treatment was started thereafter.
Despite the immense importance of cancer screening, there are only few good methods available, which are typically recommended for all patients one they reach a particular age—even if they’re not currently exhibiting any symptoms.
Cancer Screening Test #1: Colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is a procedure where a gastroenterologist inserts a camera attached to a flexible tube into a patient’s rectum, which allows them to examine the whole length of the colon from inside. A colonoscopy is an excellent test for screening cancer, and is first recommend at age 50 if you don’t have a family history of colon cancer. However, if someone in your family has been diagnosed with colon cancer, you should begin screenings 10 years earlier than your relative was when they were diagnosed (e.g. if your relative was diagnosed at 45, you may want to begin screening at age 35).
Even if you don’t have a family history of colon cancer, it’s important that you begin receiving colonoscopies at age 50, because many individuals start developing colon polyps after the half-century mark. This is important because some of these polyps could potentially be premalignant, and may become cancerous at a later time.
During your colonoscopy, if your Advanced Family Medicine physician sees a polyp, it can be removed immediately, which makes the procedure not only diagnostic, but treatment-based as well. But don’t worry—you’ll be asleep during the procedure, so you won’t experience any discomfort or pain.
Cancer Screening Test #2: Pap Smear
Another important cancer screening test is a pap smear, which screens for cervical cancer in women. This type of cancer is often caused by the human papilloma virus (acquired via sexual contact), and affects the cervix, which is part of the uterus responsible for keeping it closed during pregnancy. Currently, the human papilloma virus (HPV) can be vaccinated against beginning at age 9, for both females and males. For females, most insurance companies cover this vaccination until 25 years of age.
Using a speculum, the cervix is easily visible during a routine doctor’s visit, at which point your physician can quickly obtain a swab. Afterward, this swab will be sent off for evaluation using cytology analysis, which will help rule out any abnormal cell growth on your cervix. Ultimately, this test can help detect cervical cancer a few years before it ever develops.
It’s recommended that women begin pap smear screenings between 21 and 23 years of age, which should be repeated every 1 to 3 years, depending on your previous test results or family history.
Cancer Screening Test #3: Mammogram
Even today, mammograms—x-ray pictures of the breast—remain the best test available for breast cancer screenings in females, which should be performed annually. Whether you’ve detected a lump in your breast during a self-check or have no signs whatsoever, mammograms can be immensely helpful in diagnosing breast cancer in its early stages.
Mammograms can be performed in 15-30 minutes, and involve compressing your breast between two plates, which allow the x-rays to deeply penetrate the tissue, and to create a clear image. These images are then reviewed by a physician, and your results are provided within a couple working days.
Cancer Screening Test #4: Prostate Exam
Screening for prostate cancer usually begins at age 45 for Caucasians, and at 50 for African-Americans, as long as there are no symptoms. These include straining during urination, excessive dripping after urination, frequent nighttime urination, and weak urine stream. If you are exhibiting one or more of these symptoms, then you should call AFM immediately to schedule a prostate exam.
Prostate exams should occur at least once per year, and involve a physician-performed rectal exam, as well as a prostate specific antigen (PSA) check, which can be detected simply by drawing a little blood.
What Should You Do if You’re Looking to be Screened for Cancer?
As a physician, it’s quite frustrating to watch previously healthy patients develop advanced, but completely preventable, cancers. Because of this, I spend a lot of time speaking with patients and stressing the importance of these cancer screening procedures.
Unfortunately, there are some patients that we have a difficult time convincing, and as a result, they find themselves in advanced stages sooner or later. Instead, we here at AFM strongly urge you to follow you doctor’s recommendation and to keep a close eye on your cancer screening schedule.