What is Cancer Screening?

Cancer screening is a way in which doctors check for some forms of cancer in the body when you don’t have any symptoms. The goal of cancer screening is to find those cancers that can be found as early as possible, before a person has any symptoms.

Different tests can be used to screen for different types of cancers. The age at which screening starts varies depending on the type of cancer being screened for. That’s because different cancers tend to strike at different times in a person’s life.

Why should I have Cancer Screening?

Cancer that is found early often is small and can sometimes be cured or treated easily. Treating certain cancers early can help people live longer. Sometimes, screening finds cells that do not yet show cancer, but that might turn into cancer cells. Doctors often treat this “pre-cancer” before it has a chance to become cancer.

Does everyone have the same Cancer Screening?

No. Not everyone is screened for the same types of cancer. And not everyone begins cancer screening at the same age. For example, people with a family history of certain cancers might begin screening at a younger age than people without a family history. People might have repeat screening tests at different times, too.

Ask your doctor:

  • Which cancers should I be screened for?
  • Are there choices to make about which screening tests to have?
  • At what age should I begin cancer screening?
  • How often should I be screened?

Does an abnormal screening test result mean that I have cancer?

Not always. An abnormal screening test result means that you might have cancer. It does not mean that you definitely have cancer. If you have an abnormal result, your doctor will probably need to do other tests to find out for sure if anything is wrong. Try not to worry about having cancer until you follow up with your doctor.

Which cancers can people be screened for?

Some of the types of cancer for which screening tests are available are:

  • Breast cancer – The main test used to screen for breast cancer is called a “mammogram.” Doctors do not always agree about when women should start having mammograms. But most women start around age 40 or 50. Women who have a strong family history of breast cancer might begin screening earlier. Work with your doctor to decide when to start breast cancer screening and at what age you might stop screening.
  • Colon cancer – There are multiple screening tests for colon cancer. The choice of which test to have is up to you and your doctor. Doctors recommend that most people begin having colon cancer screening at age 50. Some people have an increased chance of getting colon cancer, because of a strong family history or certain medical conditions. These people might begin screening at a younger age.
  • Cervical cancer – One of the main tests used to screen for cervical cancer is called a “Pap smear” or “Pap test.” Cervical cancer screening with a Pap test often begins when a woman turns 21. Doctors might add or switch to another screening test, called an “HPV test,” after a woman turns 30. Women who are older than 65 might or might not need to continue cervical cancer screening. If you are older than 65, talk with your doctor about whether or not you should keep getting screened.
  • Prostate cancer – The main test used to screen for prostate cancer is called a “PSA test.” It is unclear whether getting screened for prostate cancer can extend a man’s life or help him feel better. For this reason, most experts recommend that each man work with his doctor to decide whether screening is right for him. In most cases, men should start discussing prostate cancer screening around the age of 50. Men can start screening around the age of 40 if they are at higher risk for prostate cancer. This includes black men, men who have a relative with prostate cancer, and men who have a certain abnormal gene. Most doctors do not recommend screening for men age 70 or older or for men with serious health problems.
  • Lung cancer – The main test used to screen for lung cancer is an imaging test called a “low dose CT scan.” If you are at high risk of lung cancer, for example, because you smoke or used to smoke, ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of screening. If you really want to reduce your chances of getting or dying from lung cancer, it is very important to stop smoking.
  • Ovarian cancer – To screen for ovarian cancer, doctors can do a blood test, an imaging test called an ultrasound, or both. But these tests do not always find early ovarian cancer. Still, the tests are sometimes used in women with a family history of ovarian or breast cancer. For them, screening might begin at age 30 to 35. Screening is not recommended for women who do not have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer.