Why early detection matters
Screening for cancer isn't new, but many of the reasons you should pay attention are. Research suggests that regular screening is one of the most successful tools in preventing the disease. What's more, with advances in technology, screening has been shown to effectively detect pre-cancerous cells before they metastasize, thereby slashing a person's cancer risk by almost half. (This is true even if there's a predisposition to developing the disease.)
Who should be screened
While everyone should be vigilant about self-examination (especially skin and breast checks), screening becomes even more important as we age and or if we are part of high-risk groups such as:
- People with a family history of a specific cancer
- Certain ethnic groups
- Those who are obese or physically inactive
- Those who eat unhealthfully
- People with large moles or fair skin
If you're among any of these groups, talk to your doctor immediately to learn about your risks and to take advantage of any screening tests that might be available.
Types of tests
Cancer screening for women
Who: All women over 40
What: An MRI of the soft tissue of the breasts
Why: Women at increased risk may not be able to catch pre-cancerous lumps with just a self-exam.
Who: All women who are sexually active.
What: A test and pelvic examination that tests for STDs and precancerous cells
When: Depending on your risk factors, every one to three years
Why: The most important risk factor for developing cervical cancer is infection with human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease. Detecting it early can help prevent the development of cervical, uterine, anal and ovarian cancers.
Cancer screening for men
Who: At-risk men over 40
What: Two tests -- a digital rectal exam (DRE) performed as a yearly physical checkup, and the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test
When: Men should discuss these tests with their doctors if they're at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer. This includes African American men and men who have had a first-degree relative with the disease.
Why: Prostate cancer is very treatable when caught early.
Cancer screening for both women and men
Colon and rectal exam
Who: Everyone over 50
What: Tests to identify pre-cancerous polyps. Tests include the fecal occult blood test (FOBT), colonoscopy, barium enema, fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and stool test.
When: Depending on risk, every year to every five years (talk to your doctor)
Why: Colon and rectal cancers are easily treated if they're caught early.