Cancer Screenings 101: Learn About the Tests That Can Save Your Life

The statistics are alarming.  The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1.6 new cancer diagnoses and nearly 600,000 cancer-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017. Every cancer is different and for some types, preventive screenings or tests can help detect cancers early, improving treatment outcomes.

Dr. Julie Rowe  is an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. She provides recommendations on four common cancers, including  who should get screened, when to start and how often.

Breast Cancer

Decades of research show that detecting breast cancer early through regular mammograms improves treatment outcomes. Early detection leads to less aggressive treatment like surgery to remove the breast (mastectomy) and chemotherapy. With early detection, breast cancer is more likely to be cured.

  • What does the screening entail? While it is important to know your body and be aware of changes in your breast, a mammogram can find abnormalities before the onset of physical symptoms.
  • Who is at risk? Any woman at any age can develop breast cancer; however, a strong family history or an inherited genetic mutation such as BRCA1, BRCA2, or other breast cancer susceptibility genes has been shown to increase risks.
  • Recommended age and frequency for screening? When a woman turns 40 she has the option to get annual mammograms until age 45. Between the ages of 45-54, annual mammograms are recommended. Women 55 and older can get a mammogram every other year or continue annual mammograms.

Prostate Cancer

After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men in the U.S. About one in seven will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. Prostate cancer screenings can catch the cancer before symptoms start.

  • What does the screening entail? Two common tests—a digital rectal exam and a blood test, which measures the level of prostate specific antigen (PSA) are used to screen for prostate cancer.
  • Who is at risk? The older you get, the greater your risk. Your risk is higher if you have a father or a brother who has been diagnosed (usually diagnosed before age 65), or if you are African American.
  • Recommended age and frequency for screening? Men should learn everything they can about prostate cancer screenings and consult with their doctor to weigh the pros and cons. However, if you experience difficulties urinating or changes in stream, increased frequency including getting up during the night or pain, see a doctor right away.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and in women. Studies show that screening those at high risk before symptoms appear, can detect lung cancer early when it is easier to treat and more likely to be cured.

  • What does the screening entail? A low-dose spiral CT scan is the only proven and effective way to screen for lung cancer.
  • Who is at risk? Smoking causes 80-85 percent of lung cancer in the U.S. If you are a current or former smoker, your risk of developing lung cancer may be up to 25 times higher than someone who has never smoked.
  • Recommended age and frequency for screening? Screenings are recommended for patients between the ages of 55 to 74 who have at least a 30-pack-year smoking history, currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years, and who are in good health.

Colorectal Cancer

Although the incidence rates of colorectal cancer have decreased, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer in men and women.  It is the second leading cause of death in men and third in women. The decline in incidence and death rates is due to improvement in early detection and screening.

  • What does the screening entail? There are three ways to be screened for CRC: 1) stool based testing for microscopic blood or changes in stool, 2) endoscopic evaluations such as colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, or 3) CT colonography.
  • Who is at risk? CRC risk factors include obesity, physical inactivity, diet high in red or processed meat and low in fruits and vegetables.  In 2016, processed meat was classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Personal history, family history or inherited genetic mutations associated with colorectal cancer such as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), familial adenomatosis polyposis (FAP) syndrome, or history of inflammatory bowel syndrome are also risk factors.
  • Recommended age and frequency for screening? Screenings are recommend around age 50 in average risk men and women without family or personal history of CRC.

“Cancer screenings are the most effective way to identify certain cancers earlier which then offers us the best possible options for treatment and most importantly, the possibility for cure,” said Dr. Rowe.

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Tashika Varma