You Should Know About These Cancer Screenings in Case You're at Risk

One of the scariest aspects of cancer: It could lurk inside your body and you’d have no idea. Fortunately, thanks to medical advancements, there are ways to safeguard your health. These are all the cancer screenings you should know about. One unusual test may save your life (page 10).

1. Liver cancer

  • Screenings: alpha-fetoprotein blood test

An effective cancer screening test should have more benefits than harms, according to the National Cancer Institute. Some screenings, like this liver cancer test, are only for those who are at high risk. Liver cancer produces high levels of alpha-fetoprotein. So, if you’re at high risk of this disease, your doctor may order this blood test along with imaging studies.

Next: The most common cancer in men worldwide

2. Lung cancer

  • Screenings: low-dose helical CT scan

Often called a spiral CT, this screening uses X-rays to do a multiple-image scan of the entire chest. (A regular chest X-ray only produces one flat image.) The National Lung Screening Trials found that participants who did the low-dose helical CT scan had a 15%-20% lower risk of dying from lung cancer than participants who received standard chest X-rays.

3. Colon cancer

  • Screenings: colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and stool tests

Take colon cancer seriously; it’s the second most common cancer in women and the third most common in men. If you’re at average risk, schedule your first colonoscopy when you turn 50, then do the test every 10 years. Those at high risk should look into earlier screenings. The NCI reports that colonoscopies reduce deaths from colon cancer by 60%-70%.

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4. Pancreatic cancer

  • Screenings: endoscopic ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan

If you experience symptoms of this “highly lethal cancer” — like jaundice, blood clots, and back pain — you may need to complete blood tests and a scan or MRI. The best thing these screenings can do is detect the tumor early and treat it immediately.

Next: Nearly 570,000 women were diagnosed with this cancer in 2018.

5. Cervical cancer

  • Screenings: pap test and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing

Any woman who has been sexually active is at risk of cervical cancer. However, thanks to pap and HPV tests, the number of new cases and deaths due to cervical cancer has decreased since 1950. Although this cancer is more common in female smokers, all women age 21 or older should complete one or both of these screenings.

6. Bladder cancer

  • Screenings: cystoscopy and urine cytology

More common in men than women, bladder cancer comes in three forms. There isn’t a routine test for this cancer, but those who are at high risk can do a cystoscopy or urine cytology. The former involves inserting a thin, lit tube through the urethra into the bladder. The latter uses a urine sample to look for abnormal cells.

7. Eye cancer

Screenings: annual eye exams

A simple eye exam could save your life, especially if you’re at high risk of eye melanoma, reports the American Cancer Society. Symptoms or not, an eye exam should be on your annual wellness checklist. If your optometrist sees a dark spot at the back of your eye when he or she looks through the pupil, it could indicate early melanoma.

8. Prostate cancer

Screenings: PSA test and digital rectal exam

As the second most common cancer in men, prostate cancer contributed 15.5% of new cases last year. Two screenings detect the disease early, says the ACS. A PSA blood test can look for a high level of prostate-specific antigen — a substance made in the prostate gland. The other screening is a digital rectal exam, where a doctor feels the prostate to check for tumors. The ACS recommends the latter test be done annually.

9. Skin cancer

Screenings: skin exam

Many health professionals include a skin exam as part of a routine checkup. But doctors recommend you check your body at home each month, too. “Be aware of your normal pattern of moles, freckles, and blemishes,” explains the ACS. If you spot something abnormal, run it by your doctor. And if you have reduced immunity or a strong family history of skin cancer, you may want to receive exams more often.

10. Ovarian cancer

Screenings: CA-125 test

Only 3.6% of cancer diagnoses were ovarian in 2018, but it’s still critical to find this disease early. In addition to routine pelvic exams, a CA-125 blood test can measure a protein, CA-125. A high level of this may indicate ovarian cancer. However, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease also raise CA-125 levels, so this screening isn’t reliable. ACS explains the next step may be a transvaginal ultrasound test.

Next: The most common cancer in women worldwide

11. Breast cancer

Screenings: mammogram, breast MRI, and breast exam

Breast cancer contributed 25.4% of new cases diagnosed last year, reports the World Cancer Research Fund. As the most common cancer in women, this disease is motivating experts to find new ways to screen. New technology, like 3-D mammograms, allow for clearer images, fewer errors, and better angles. Studies have found the 3-D version to detect breast cancer up to 40% better.

12. Oral cancer

Screenings: dental exams

Experts disagree on whether healthy individuals lacking risk factors need oral cancer screenings, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, if you’ve heavily used tobacco or alcohol, you may want to speak with your dentist. Upon finding an unusual sore during an oral exam, your dentist may do a biopsy to check for abnormal cells.

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13. Endometrial cancer

Screenings: endometrial biopsy

Endometrial cancer forms in the cells within the uterine lining. Because it causes abnormal bleeding, this disease can be detected early. One way endometrial cancer is eradicated is by removing the uterus via surgery. However, before this procedure, doctors may remove a small piece of the uterine tissue and examine it for cancerous cells.

14. Cancers you can’t screen

Unfortunately, you can’t screen all cancers, and many don’t present symptoms until later stages. Some notoriously difficult cancers to detect include brain, liver, kidneys, and pancreas.

Screening itself has some risks, including anxiety, pain, and bleeding. Sometimes a harmless sign can spur a risky screening procedure. The American Cancer Society has a formal review of screening guidelines. And, of course, consult your doctor with any health concerns.

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