Clearing up cancer-screening confusion

Gail Doxsie, CNP

Ben Franklin coined the phrase "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" over 200 years ago. That analogy still is true today, especially in regard to cancer prevention and early detection. Unfortunately, too often healthcare guidelines are confusing and seem to change from year to year. I hope to clear up several common questions in regard to early cancer detection and screening in this article.

Cancer screening means checking your body for cancer before there are any symptoms. The goal of early detection is to discover cancer early when the treatment is most likely to be successful. The U.S Preventative Task Force and the American Cancer Society both support screening for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer. Prostate cancer is also very prevalent and can be screened for as well.

The most effective method to detect breast cancer is through the use of mammography. Most healthcare professionals recommend annual testing beginning at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health. Clinical breast exams and self breast exams should also be done regularly to detect any lumps promptly. Some women, because of genetic tendency or family history, may also be screened by using MRI in addition to mammography. Breast cancer can also occur in men, although much less often, but mammography screening is not recommended in men.

Cervical cancer screening for women is done through Pap tests. The Pap test can find abnormal cells on the cervix that may turn into cancer. In addition, it also can identify the HPV virus (human papilloma virus) that can cause the normal cells to become atypical. Regular Pap testing should begin at age 21 and continue until at least age 65. Most women are accustomed to scheduling Pap tests annually, butrecent guidelines have suggested longer periods between testing in some individuals. The frequency of Pap testing should be discussed with your healthcare provider and based on individual risk factors and previous results.

Colorectal (colon) cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps in the colon or rectum. Beginning at age 50, both men and women should be regularly screened. Colonoscopy is a procedure used to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps or abnormal areas. It's typically recommended to have colonoscopy every 10 years; however, if you have a close relative with colon cancer or have inflammatory bowel disease, screening may need to be more often or begin at a younger age. Fecal occult blood testing may be performed annually, or a sigmoidoscopy every five years can be an alternative for patients who do not want a colonoscopy. If you have had a recent change in bowel patterns, have noticed blood in your stool, or are over 50 and have not been screened for colon cancer, you should discuss it with your healthcare provider.

Prostate cancer is also a common condition in men. Advanced age, family history, and race may increase a person's risk of the disease. Two screening tests can be done to identify prostate cancer: the digital rectal exam to feel the prostate for nodules and the PSA (prostate specific antigen) blood test. Some research has questioned the proven benefit for widespread routine screening for prostate cancer, but, nonetheless, starting at age 50, men should discuss the pros and cons of testing with their provider. The frequency of this testing will depend upon individual risk factors.

You may be wondering if there are any steps you can take to actually help prevent cancer altogether. Of course, you cannot modify your family history, your age, or your genetic makeup, but some small steps an reduce your overall cancer risk. These include:

Remaining healthy as you age can sometimes be challenging, and the recommendations can be confusing. Screening for cancer is one tool that can help you identify illness early and optimize positive outcomes. The staff at Oregon Clinic is committed to promoting wellness and successful aging. We offer a wide variety of preventative services and work as a team to foster positive healthcare decisions.

Taken from Healthy Living News Toledo, October, 2012 Issue