Millions of people are affected every year by cancer. It is one of the top causes of disease and mortality across the globe. But, there is hope for people to avoid early cancer from growing into a dangerous, life-threatening condition if you undertake screening. Screening can save lives.
What Is Cancer Screening?
Screening for cancer is when your doctor or health professional takes bloods or undertakes certain laboratory tests, X-rays or scans, to see if there are any early signs of cancer, even before symptoms have developed. Screening for cancer is combined with a physical examination to detect lumps in different parts of your body, lung changes or enlarged organs and skin changes. Lab tests include urine or blood tests, hormonal tests and swabs of tissue from the mouth, the cervix or other parts of the body. Genetic tests are also an important screening tool to see if you have gene mutations that could put you at risk.
Screening can be life-saving if the cancer is detected in its very early stages. The best-case scenario is obviously to be able to cure the cancer, but early screening can also prevent pain and suffering and it also can save the costs of treatment following a diagnosis of a more advanced cancer.
Who Is Most at Risk of Cancer?
Some people are at greater risk for developing cancer. For example, people with a family history of cancer or who have made lifestyle choices, such as smoking, or lots of exposure to the sun. Some people are also at greater risk for certain cancers, if they have a genetic predisposition to develop cancer. An example of this is in women who carry a mutated BRCA 1 or 2 gene. BRCA is an abbreviation of Breast Cancer, and we all have the gene in our bodies. However, in some people this gene is mutated and can result in a higher propensity to develop breast cancer. Screening for this gene helps identify those at risk and will inform options that are available to mitigate this risk. This could include a double mastectomy which removes all breast tissue to avoid the cancer from developing.
Who Should Undergo Cancer Screening?
Undergoing cancer screening is important and could help save lives. The following are recommendations for screening based on age:
- Ages 25 – 39: During these years, it is recommended to do screening for cancer of the cervix. This is a simple screening method that involves a pap smear being taken from the cells lining your cervix. It is relatively painless, and the results should be available in a few days. This test picks up very early stages of cell abnormality, even before the cells have become cancerous. Detecting abnormal cells at this stage provides an excellent prognosis and the precancerous cells can be removed, essentially ensuring that cancer does not develop. Most countries recommend screening with pap smears every three years during these ages.
- Ages 40 – 49: It is recommended screening for breast cancer at age 40 to 45 years old. Breast cancer screening involves a physical examination of your breasts, where you feel for lumps and a mammogram, which is where an Xray image is taken of your breasts to look for abnormal tissue. It is an uncomfortable test for some as it squashes your breast tissue between two plates, but it is not painful and usually takes only 30-40 minutes to perform. Genetic tests for the BRCA gene is also helpful for those with a family history of breast cancer. Cervical cancer screening, described above, is also recommended during these age groups. Colorectal cancer screening is recommended for ages 45 – 50 years old and prostate screening for men aged 45 years is also often recommended.
- Ages 50+: Screening for breast and cervical cancer should continue during these ages. Colorectal cancer screening is also important during this age range. Lung cancer screening is important for people who have or are currently smoking and screening for prostate cancer is also important after 50 years old, for men. A physical examination can detect an enlarging prostate but the most reliable means of detecting prostate cancer is through the use of a blood test known as a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test. It measures the level of PSA in the blood. PSA is made by the prostate and can be higher in the presence of cancer although there are other conditions of the prostate that can elevate the PSA including age. Your doctor will assess the risk and help decide on further action, if your PSA is elevated.
New Discoveries for Breast & Ovarian Cancer Screening
After nearly 30 years of research in this area, South African genetic scientists at Stellenbosch University have very recently discovered new cost-effective genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer. Once operationalised, it will be able to offer affordable and quick screening to ensure early risk detection.
The new technology is based on rapid “point of care” – POC – testing. It has great potential for use in disadvantaged communities, particularly in rural areas where there is a lack of expensive laboratory equipment present. It will also potentially allow for screening in less costly clinic visits, eliminating the need to present at a tertiary level care facility. The test will be carried out by taking saliva through an inner cheek or throat swab rather than a blood test and results will be available within 90 minutes.
Are There Risks Associated with Cancer Screening?
Yes, there can be with certain screening tests. There is a chance that there may be a false positive. This means that the test shows up for cancer that is not actually there. Doctors usually, however, come to their conclusions using a combination of approaches to eliminate false positives. This includes physical examination, back up blood and other laboratory tests that may point to a cancer presence in your body. Very often, this combination makes a false positive unlikely.
There are also risks of bleeding or infection at the site of a screening test such as a biopsy – when a sample of tissue is cut out of a lump for example. This can usually be contained. Most screening tests are painless, but there may be some pain associated with some (like a biopsy). It is important to discuss your situation with your health professional and make a decision together as to what is in the best interests of your good health.
The Importance of Screening
Many people avoid screening for cancer because of the fear of discovering bad news. This is understandable, but, it is important to remember that screening is often a life-saving action that can not only catch cancer at a stage where it is still treatable, yet may also be able to ensure a better outcome of your journey with the disease. For this reason, it is worth screening for cancer, even if you are feeling perfectly healthy. It is better to have the news, get better informed of your available options and take action that has the potential to greatly improve the quality of your life, and if detected early enough, to ensure a full cure.