Testing for cancer: Why is it important and how is it done?
Testing for cancer: Why is it important and how is it done?

There are many accurate and effective tests and screening procedures for cancer. Early detection is an important part of survival. Many cancers are treatable, with excellent long-term results, if detected early. The problem is that many people wait to be tested for cancer until they show symptoms, or avoid testing entirely.

Don't wait to feel pain before getting checked for cancer. Many cancers do not cause symptoms in their early (most treatable) stages. Because cancer may not have any early symptoms, screening or testing for some cancers can help. Screening tests are more important as you get older.

In South Carolina, cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, uterine cervix, and colorectal cancer are the most common. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of death among women in South Carolina. Finding and treating breast cancer early can improve the survival rate. But many women do not have regular clinical breast exams and mammograms.

Finding cancers early through examination or testing can save lives and reduce suffering. This is why it is important to visit a doctor for physical exams. It is also important to learn how to do self-exams for breast cancer and testicular cancer. Your doctor or nurse can teach you how to do this. Some tests and procedures for discovering cancer include:

For colorectal cancer: Digital rectal examination (DRE), fecal occult blood test (FOBT), sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. Colonoscopy allows your doctor to see the lining of your entire colon. Small (often precancerous) polyps can be removed during the procedure. These tests are recommended for men and women.

For breast cancer: Self-examination, clinical breast examination and mammography, at regular intervals, as recommended or performed by a physician.

For cervical, uterine and vaginal cancers: Annual examination by a physician and a Pap Smear.

For prostate cancer: Digital examination of the prostate by a physician and the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test. While important for all men, African Americans in South Carolina are three times more likely than whites to die from prostate cancer.

For testicular cancer: Self-examination, with follow-up by a physician.

For skin cancers: Regular self-examination.

Some of these procedures are cost-free, most are absolutely pain-free, and all are performed in the privacy of your home or doctor’s office, or on an out-patient basis at your local health care facility. Most health insurance covers the cost of these procedures. In short, there is no reason not to be screened for cancer.

Should any of these procedures and tests point to a possible cancer, your doctor may recommend further testing (X-rays, computerized scans) to gather information about an abnormality. From there, the doctor may recommend a biopsy of the suspected cancer. Doctors surgically (or by needle) remove a small sample of the abnormal cells and examine them under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.

To learn more:

PDQ® Cancer Information Summaries: Screening /Detection (Testing for Cancer)
(National Cancer Institute)
This list is arranged by type of cancer. Each article discusses the kinds of screening tests which can be used to detect cancer. Risks for each type of cancer are also listed. Each article is offered in a version for patients and a version for health professionals.

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Written by: Nancy C. McKeehan, M.S.L.S.
Reviewed by: Jeffrey G. Schultze, M.D.
Last Modified: Thursday September 22, 2016 9:14 PM