There is often a fear and anxiety associated with getting tested for cancer. The fact is, however, that if there is a danger present, ignoring it is the absolute worst thing you can do while getting tested will bring peace of mind, or at worst, aid in early detection and treatment.
We need to normalise talking to friends and family about cancer prevention. Ignoring physical signs and symptoms will only build your anxiety levels. You can reduce the shock of your diagnosis by taking a regular health checkup. In nearly all types of cancer, early detection is the most important factor in higher survival rates.
To understand a bit more about the screening process and what it entails, we’ve broken down some of the medical techniques used to test for some of the more common types of cancer.
Breast cancer screening:
A mammogram is a chest x-ray that can identify cancer before the patient shows symptoms or feels a lump in the breast. Mammography screening is used to look for signs of breast cancer in people with and without symptoms and should be done every few years.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is most commonly used by people who have been previously diagnosed with breast cancer, but doctors may recommend it to people at high risk or with a family history. An MRI can provide a detailed image of the breast to give the doctor information about the extent of cancer and to find out more about any abnormalities.
Clinical Breast Examination
A clinical breast examination is a regular exam done by a doctor to look for lumps in the breast. You can do these yourself at home, but doctors may have more knowledge of what to feel for. These tests are often done during regular tests by an obstetrician/gynaecologist or family doctor. Self-assessment and clinical examination of the breast should be started as soon as you are old enough to see an obstetrician/gynaecologist. When a woman is about 40 years old, she should start taking mammograms.
The guidelines for breast cancer screening are as follows:
- 40-44 years old: Get a mammogram every year or every two years.
- 45-54 years old: Get a mammogram every year.
- From 55 years old: Take mammograms every two years.
If you are at high risk for breast cancer, for example, if you have a family history of breast cancer, you should start mammography 10 years earlier than recommended for the general public.
Risk Factors for Breast Cancer:
Breast cancer is not uniform. In short, these risk factors do not guarantee that you will get breast cancer. However, they may increase the risk of developing cancerous tissue and that means that more attention may be needed during your health checkup.
Age: Aging increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Most often, it is diagnosed in people over the age of 50.
Gene mutations: Some people inherit or develop mutated genes that are at risk of disease. These can be identified by genetic testing.
Reproductive history: People who started menstruating before the age of 12 or who started menopause after the age of 55 are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
People diagnosed with breast cancer do not always have the same symptoms. However, there are some warning signs to note like a new lump on the chest or armpit, nipple discharge that is not breast milk, changes in breast size and shapes, chest pain, breast thickening, swelling, or inflammation.
Cervical cancer screening:
These screenings can detect precursors of cervical cancer before they become cancer. The following tests are used to screen for cervical cancer:
The pap smear, or Papanicolaou stain test, is performed in a gynaecologist’s office where cells are collected from the cervix to check for abnormalities or changes in cells that may lead to cervical cancer. It is a regular inspection.
The HPV test is performed like a pap smear and collects cells from the cervix to test for abnormalities. The HPV test looks for signs of the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer.
When should I be tested for cervical cancer?
It is best to start screening for cervical cancer as soon as you meet an obstetrician and gynaecologist. The general guidelines for cervical cancer screening are:
- 21-29 years old: Start pap smear specimens every 3 years.
- 30-64 years: Start with a combination of pap smear specimens every 3 years, HPV tests every 5 years, or both tests every 5 years.
- 65+: If you have had normal results for several years, or if you have had a total hysterectomy, you may be able to stop screening for cervical cancer.
Risk factors for cervical cancer:
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. However, the following factors can also increase your risk of developing the disease:
HIV: This virus makes it difficult for the body to fight the disease and can lead to cervical cancer.
Smoking: Tobacco by-products can damage the DNA of cervical cells and increase the risk of cancer.
Taking oral contraceptives for at least 5 years: Long-term use of oral contraceptives may increase your risk of developing cancer. This risk decreases as you stop taking oral contraceptives for longer periods.
Having 3 or more children: Women who have 3 or more full-time pregnancies are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
In the early stages of cervical cancer, symptoms are almost always not visible. However, at a later stage, abnormal bleeding and vaginal discharge can occur.
Colorectal cancer screening:
With the exception of skin cancer, colon cancer (cancer of the colon and rectum) is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women.
Types of colon cancer screening:
The most common visual test is a colonoscopy. The visual test involves inserting a long, thin tube into the rectum to check for colon abnormalities. Virtual colonoscopy uses x-rays to create an image of the colon.
A stool test analyzes faeces to check for blood and abnormal DNA. The doctor will provide a collection kit that fills the faecal sample and sends it to the laboratory for analysis.
The guidelines for colorectal cancer screening are as follows:
45-75 years: Start colon cancer screening either chair-based or by visual examination as recommended by your doctor.
76-85 years: Talk to your doctor about whether to continue the test based on life expectancy and general health.
From 86 years old: You no longer need to check for colon cancer.
Risk factors for colon cancer:
Age: Age increases the risk of developing colon cancer. You should start screening by the age of 45.
Enteropathy: Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can increase the risk of colon cancer.
Family history: A family history of colon cancer or colorectal tissue growth increases the likelihood of developing cancer.
Hereditary Syndromes: Syndromes such as cancer of the large intestine and hereditary colon cancer without polyposis may increase the risk.
Colorectal cancer usually shows no signs. However, these changes may indicate that you should consult your doctor:
- bloody stool
- persistent abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss.
Lung cancer screening:
Did you know that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, but cancer is also found in people who have never smoked but have been exposed to asbestos or radon?
Types of lung cancer screening:
Testing for lung cancer is less common than screening for other cancers. However, in some cases, the following test is used:
Low-dose computed tomography is useful for early detection of lung cancer but is generally not recommended unless the patient has the following serious risk factors: Long-term smoking. The LDCT test takes a detailed picture of the lungs with x-rays so doctors can check for abnormalities.
People who should be screened for lung cancer using the LDCT test are those between the ages of 55 and 80, who smoke heavily within 15 years of the test. A heavy smoker is someone who has smoked for more than 30 “pack years”. One pack-year means that you smoke an average of one pack of cigarettes a day for a year. To have a history of 30 packs, you need to smoke 1 pack a day for 30 years, 2 packs a day for 15 years, or 3 packs a day for 10 years. The LDCT test is not recommended for nonsmokers.
Risk factors for lung cancer:
Smoking: Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer.
Radon exposure: Radon is a natural gas that can cause lung cancer in exposed people.
Asbestos exposure: People exposed to asbestos at work or home are at risk of developing lung cancer..
Family history: The family history of this illness can mean living in an environment exposed to cigarette smoke, radon, or asbestos.
The symptoms of lung cancer are different for each person and may include the following:
- a persistent cough
- chest wheezing
- unexplained weight loss
Other types of cancer screening:
There is not enough evidence to recommend screening for other types of cancer such as prostate, ovary, or skin. However, if you feel unusual in your health or develop symptoms of any of these conditions, seek advice from your doctor to determine diagnosis and treatment options.
General health tips to avoid cancer:
Eating healthy can help reduce your risk of cancer. For example, red meat has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Eating foods rich in vitamins and antioxidants – and avoiding processed foods – can help your body ward off disease.
Staying active can also help your body ward off disease. Committing to just two hours of physical activity a week can help you combat the cancer risk associated with being overweight.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and smoking is the leading cause of the disease. Avoiding tobacco can help prevent lung cancer as well as other cancers such as mouth and throat, oesophagus, colon, and kidney.
Drinking too much alcohol has been linked to cancer risk for six types of cancer: mouth and throat, larynx, oesophagus, colorectal, and breast. Limiting alcohol intake can help reduce this risk – it is recommended that people have up to two drinks a day.
You can prevent skin cancer by wearing sunscreen when outside and wearing protective clothing such as a hat and sunglasses.
You know your body best. A quick self-exam (where applicable) could be the determining factor in catching your cancer early. Routine cancer screenings can also help identify anything you missed on home tests and can help you find cancer in its early stages.