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Patient education: Cancer screening (The Basics)

Patient education: Cancer screening (The Basics)

What is cancer screening? — Cancer screening is a way in which doctors check you for some types of cancers before you have any symptoms. Screening also involves looking for areas that can turn into cancer, or "pre-cancers." The goal of cancer screening is to find pre-cancers and cancers as early as possible, so you can get treatment and have the best possible outcome.

Different tests can be used to screen for different types of cancers. The age at which screening starts depends 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?

Are there choices to make about which screening tests to have?

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 or pre-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 people should start having mammograms. But most people start around age 40 or 50. People 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 multiple kinds of 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 around 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 – There are several ways to have cervical cancer screening, but one of the most common tests is called a "Pap smear" or "Pap test." For people with a cervix, screening with a Pap test often begins at age 21, although in some cases, screening begins at age 25. Doctors might add or switch to another screening test, called an "HPV test", after age 30. People who are older than 65 might or 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.

Prostate cancer – The main test used to screen for prostate cancer is called a "PSA test." It is unclear whether getting screened for prostate cancer can extend a person's life or help them feel better. For this reason, most experts recommend that everyone with a prostate work with their doctor to decide whether screening is right for them. In most cases, people should start discussing prostate cancer screening around the age of 50. For some people, prostate cancer screening can begin around the age of 40 if they are at higher risk. This includes Black people, people who have a relative with prostate cancer, and people who have a certain abnormal gene. Most doctors do not recommend screening for people age 70 or older or for those with serious health problems.

Lung cancer – The main test used to screen for lung cancer is an imaging test called a "low dose CT scan." For people at increased risk of lung cancer, screening can reduce your chance of dying from lung cancer. If you are 50 to 80 years old, and smoke cigarettes or used to smoke cigarettes, ask your doctor if you should be screened for lung cancer. The best way to reduce your chance of getting or dying from lung cancer 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 do not always find early ovarian cancer. Most people do not need ovarian cancer screening. Still, the tests are sometimes used in people with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. For them, screening might begin at age 30 to 35. Screening is not recommended for people who do not have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.

More on this topic

Patient education: Breast cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: Genetic testing for breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Colon and rectal cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: Prostate cancer screening (PSA tests) (The Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer screening tests (The Basics)
Patient education: Lung cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: Ovarian cancer screening (The Basics)

Patient education: Breast cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Screening for colorectal cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Lung cancer prevention and screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Prostate cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Screening for ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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