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Cancer Screening Basics

December 09, 2016

Today’s technology allows doctors to diagnose diseases much earlier than ever before. Some of the greatest advancements are in the area of cancer screenings, which can help detect cancer sooner and offer the best chance for treatment and recovery.

“Screening is one of the main topics for health maintenance that all primary care physicians should cover with their patients,” says David H. Kim MD, FACR, professor of radiology and vice chair of education, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Your primary care doctor should know enough about you to know which screenings are best for you. There are general guidelines such as beginning screening for colon cancer at age 50 for most people. However, those who have a family history of colon cancer should begin screening earlier, which is why it’s important for you and your doctor to know your family history.

The American Cancer Society’s website offers an easy-to-understand guide on recommended cancer screenings. It’s a good idea to take control of your own health and check which cancer screenings might be right for you – then check with your doctor. You can review your health plan to find out which screenings are covered or how much they may cost you out of pocket if they aren’t covered by your plan.

Overall, the guidelines for screenings are straightforward, says Kim. For the average risk population, for men and women a colon cancer screening is recommended, and, for women, breast and cervical cancer screenings.

“There is a large body of evidence that shows screening is effective in decreasing death from these cancer types,” says Kim. “Lung cancer screening is recommended for a specific subset of the population, including older individuals with a substantial smoking history”

Cancer screenings are not created equal

That’s one reason why a primary care doctor with intimate patient knowledge is the best way to determine what screenings best suit you, Kim says. Almost without exception, everyone should be screened for colon cancer.

According to Kim, “there’s a specific point about colon cancer screening that separates it from breast and cervical cancer screening,” he says. “In breast and cervical cancer, we are using a screening test to detect cancer in its early stages, which improves the patient’s likelihood to survive cancer (as opposed to detecting cancer later when the person has symptoms).”

That means physicians can use breast and cervical cancer tests to detect early cancers but do not have the ability to detect a screening target, such as a colorectal polyp, that is not cancer but can turn into cancer 10 to 15 years down the line. The screening allows what Kim calls “the rare opportunity” to actually prevent colon cancer, which is not possible in breast or cervical cancer, where there is no such target.