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Don't wait: Everything to know about cancer screenings

Checkups and screenings are an important part of health care, helping detect serious diseases such as cancer while they're in their earliest stages. 

This allows treatment to begin sooner, which can make a big difference in its success.

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The types of cancer you should be screened for and when you should start depends on several considerations, including your personal and family health history. Talk with your doctor about any risk factors you may have as well as when you should be tested.

The following guidelines will help you decide when to start yearly checkups:

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Screening for breast cancer helps catch the disease early, when it’s more easily treated. Economic despair could deter some women from seeking screenings, a Georgia State University study found. Photo by JEFF GUERINI (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Breast cancer screening

The American Cancer Society recommends the following for most women, assuming they're at average risk of developing breast cancer:

  • Age 40: Talk to your doctor about your risk factors, and start getting mammograms if you want to.
  • Age 45: Begin having yearly mammograms.
  • Age 55: You can start having mammograms every other year, but can continue to have them yearly if you'd prefer.

Besides age, other risk factors may warrant more frequent mammograms, and you should always talk to your doctor about your specific situation. These risk factors include:

  • Genetics: Certain genetic mutations can increase your risk of breast (and ovarian) cancer.
  • Personal history of breast cancer: If you've already had breast cancer, you're more likely to get it again.
  • Family history of breast cancer: A family history of breast cancer (in women or men) can raise your risk.
  • Combination hormone therapy: Taking estrogen and progestin together for more than five years increases your risk.
  • Dense breasts: If you have dense breasts, they have more connective than fatty tissue. Not only does this make them more likely to develop cancer, it also makes tumors harder to detect.
  • Early periods: If you had your first menstrual period before age 12, you've been exposed to estrogen for longer periods of time.
  • Later pregnancy: If you've never had a full-term pregnancy or had your first pregnancy after age 30, it can raise your risk.
  • Later menopause: Starting menopause after age 55 increases your exposure to estrogen.
  • Extra pounds: If you're overweight after menopause, your risk can be greater.

Manual exams - whether they're self-exams or done by a doctor - are no longer recommended because they haven't been shown to have a clear benefit. But you should still be familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel and talk to your doctor right away about any changes.

Prostate cancer screening

There are two types of screening for prostate cancer – a PSA test and a digital rectal exam. 

The PSA is a blood test that looks for high levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which can indicate the presence of prostate cancer.

Unfortunately, the test can produce false positive or false negative results, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have an abnormal result, you'll likely undergo a biopsy, which can cause pain, infection and bleeding. On the other hand, a false negative means that you may have cancer, but the test fails to detect it. That's why the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, along with the CDC and American Cancer Society, don't recommend a PSA test for every man. Instead, some organizations suggest that men discuss the risks and benefits with their doctors.

For the digital rectal exam, a doctor or nurse inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into your rectum to feel for the size of your prostate as well as for any lumps. This can be done as part of a routine physical exam, but it's not considered an effective screening unless it's performed alongside other tests.

WebMD recommends starting screening earlier if you're African-American or if you have a family history of the disease, which can increase your risk.

Colon cancer screening

Tests for colon cancer can be divided into the following types:

  • Those that can find colorectal polyps (growths that can become cancer) as well as cancer
  • Those that can detect only cancer

A colonoscopy is the most effective type of screening because it can find polyps as well as cancer. It requires you to clean out your colon and rectum before the test, usually by drinking a solution that makes you have frequent bowel movements.

A colonoscopy is conducted while you're under anesthesia. Your doctor will pass a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end into your rectum and colon. If polyps are detected, your doctor can take a small tissue sample (biopsy) during your colonoscopy and send it for further testing.

The American Cancer Society recommends that men and women who are at average risk should have the test every 10 years starting at age 50. If polyps are detected, you may need follow-up tests more frequently to look for possible changes.

stool DNA test detects blood or DNA changes consistent with cancer. It is less invasive than a colonosopy, but it can't detect non-cancerous polyps. The test should be done every three years. If the results are positive, a follow-up colonoscopy will be needed.

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