June 15, 2021

Cancer screening 101: Your guide to early detection

A notebook calendar with a reminder to schedule a breast cancer screening

Cancer is significantly more treatable when caught early. That’s a fact.

As we age, our risk of developing cancer gradually begins to increase. Fortunately, for a handful of cancers, there are widely-available, accurate and inexpensive screening methods that can catch the disease in early stages.

If you’ve never had a cancer screening before – or could just use a refresher on the best time to get a mammogram or a colonoscopy – we here at the UW Carbone Cancer Center have got you covered.

Below are screening recommendations for five major cancers which can be detected in early stages. Screening guidance is based on the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Other organizations may offer slightly different recommendations. As with anything, it’s best to consult with your doctor to determine the best course of action for your individual situation.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer screening begins at home. For women, it’s important to know what is normal for your breasts, and be on the lookout for any changes.

The most common method of screening for breast cancer is a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast. Mammograms can generally be scheduled through your primary care provider.

At UW Health, we recommend you talk to your doctor about your risk factors for breast cancer and preferences for screening, and consider a screening mammogram beginning at age 40.

Women at a higher-risk of breast cancer – such as those with a family history of the disease or those who’ve tested positive for a BRCA gene mutation – should talk to their doctor about the possibility of earlier screening.

The UW Health Breast Center offers further guidance on prevention of screening of breast cancer. Other screening options, such as breast MRI or 3D mammography, may also be available depending on your situation.

Colorectal cancer

Most Americans should now start colorectal cancer (CRC) screening at age 45, according to the most recent update form the USPSTF. That’s five years earlier than previously recommended.

The most common method of CRC screening is the colonoscopy. It’s the most sensitive and comprehensive test, allowing your doctor to see your entire colon and remove any precancerous polyps that may be present. Patients with a clean bill of health typically require a colonoscopy once every ten years, but in some cases, a physician may ask you to come back sooner.

A colonoscopy does require some preparation on the patient’s part, which some may find uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

For those seeking other screening options, you may have choices. Your healthcare provider may also offer virtual colonoscopies, which involve a CT scan, or sigmoidoscopies, which are like colonoscopies but only look at the left half of the colon. Various at-home tests are also available.

One last thing to consider. Cases of CRC are on the rise among younger Americans. If you are younger than 45 and experiencing concerning symptoms, such as blood in your stool or changes in bowel habits, consult your physician.

Prostate cancer

A prostate specific antigen or PSA test is the most common method of screening men for prostate cancer. PSA is a substance made by the prostate and can be found in the blood. An elevated level PSA in the blood can be an indicator, but not a guarantee, of prostate cancer. Only a biopsy can lead to an official diagnosis.

Men are encouraged to speak to their doctors about the benefits and potential drawbacks of prostate cancer screening. The USPSTF recommends that men aged 55 to 69 years old should make individual decisions about being screened for prostate cancer with a PSA test.
Men at higher risk for prostate cancer – such as Black men and those with a family history of the disease – should consider starting screening even earlier.

While getting a PSA test is not inherently risky, there are some reasons why men choose to forego this screening. Prostate cancer often grows slowly, or not at all, and some men may never notice a symptom. Some even live with prostate cancer for years and don’t know it. But screening and biopsies can help determine which prostate cancers are most at risk for spreading, and which are good candidates for “active surveillance.”

Cervical cancer

Screening for cervical cancer may entail a Pap test, an HPV test, or both. This screening entails a pelvic exam and a brush of the cervix to remove cells, which will be examined in a lab. If an abnormality is found, you may require further evaluation and should not put off care.

Cervical cancer screening begins much sooner than screening for other cancers. If you have a cervix, the USPSTF recommends Pap tests beginning at age 21, and having one every three years. Once you turn 30, you can continue to have Pap tests every three years, or you can have an HPV test once every five years. You may also choose to have both every five years.

In addition to these screenings, HPV vaccination is a strong and effective protector against cervical cancer. Beginning at age 11, boys and girls should receive an HPV vaccine. If you didn’t receive the vaccine as a child, it may not be too late to get one. In 2018, the FDA approved the HPV vaccine for women and men up to age 45.

Lung cancer

This screening involves a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan to detect nodules and abnormalities in the lungs, and possibly lung cancer in its earliest stages. A radiologist will conduct this procedure.

Lung cancer screening is typically aimed at smokers and former smokers between the ages of 50 and 80 years. Smoking significantly increases your lifetime risk of developing lung cancer. If you are a current or former smoker who has quit within the past 15 years, the USPSTF recommends you undergo this screening on a yearly basis. Medical experts also stress than annual lung cancer screenings are not a substitute for quitting smoking.

Non-smokers may also be eligible for screening in some cases. If you have symptoms such as blood in sputum, unexplained weight loss or chest pain, please consult your doctor, as these could be symptoms of lung cancer.