Cancer Screening

Getting screened regularly for cancer and other health issues is the best way to prevent many different types of disease. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about what types of cancer you should be screened regularly for.

What is cancer screening?

Cancer screening is a way in which doctors check for some forms of cancer in the body when you don't have any symptoms. 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?
  • 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. 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?

Breast cancer

The main test used to screen for breast cancer is called a mammogram. Doctors do not always agree about when to start having mammograms, but most recommend starting 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.

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Colon cancer

There are multiple 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.

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Cervical cancer

The main test used to screen for cervical cancer is called a pap smear. Cervical cancer screening often begins when a person turns 21. Doctors might add on another screening test after the age of 30. If you are older than 65, you might not need to continue cervical cancer screening, so 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 your life or help you feel better. For this reason, most experts do not recommend routine prostate cancer screening. Instead, experts recommend that you work with your doctor to decide whether screening is right for you. In most cases, you should start discussing prostate cancer screening around the age of 50. Most doctors do not recommend screening for people age 70 or older or for those with serious health problems.

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Lung cancer

The main test used to screen for lung cancer is an imaging test called a low-dose CT scan. If you are at high risk of lung cancer—because you smoke, for example—ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of screening. 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.

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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. 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 those who do not have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.

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