The American Cancer Society has estimated that 745,180 men and 692,000 women will have cancer this year in the United States. Of those cases, the most common are cancers of the skin, prostate cancer in men, breast and uterine-related cancers in women, lung, and colon and rectum — in both men and women.
Simple cancer screenings, like having a doctor check your skin for signs of skin cancer (and doing the check yourself as well), can help you detect problems early on.
Early detection of the disease followed by timely treatment increases the survival rates for people who suffer from cancer. There are a number of cancer screening tests that are advocated by doctors and organizations such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the American Cancer Society (ACS).
1. Skin Cancer Screening
A yearly skin cancer screening by your doctor is recommended by the American Academy of Dermatologists. This test consists of a visual skin inspection to check for any suspicious-looking areas, such as moles and lesions.
Self-exams can be done at home, with the help of a mirror or two, once a month. You should check all areas of your body — even those not exposed to the sun. This includes your scalp, palms of hands, soles of feet, underarms, stomach, etc. Use a mirror for those hard-to-see places. You’re looking for what The Skin Cancer Foundation and other organizations call the “ABCDs” of moles and melanoma.
Here’s what to look for:
- Asymmetry: Most melanomas are asymmetric (a line down the middle will not split it evenly in half).
- Border: Melanomas may have irregular borders with scalloped or notched edges. Normal moles will have a smoother border.
- Color: Melanomas typically have varied shades of brown, tan or black, and may later progress to red, white and blue. Normal moles are usually a single shade of brown.
- Diameter: A melanoma may be larger than a regular mole, or at least the size of a pencil eraser (about 1/4 inch in diameter). They may be smaller, however.
Further, you should watch for changes in regular moles, such as changes in color, size, elevation, sensation (like itching) or shape. If you notice anything suspicious, see your doctor right away.
If you want a more thorough examination, or if you find a questionable mole or lesion, follow up with a visit to the dermatologist who can do a visual inspection and a possible biopsy of the area, if necessary. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common overall, however melanoma is the most common form of skin cancer in young adults. Skin cancer can affect the young and … not so young, so exams can be done on children and adults alike.
2. Prostate Cancer Screening
Two forms of prostate cancer screening are the Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) and the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. The ACS suggests a yearly screening/exam for men over the age of 45.
3. Breast Cancer Screening
Women over the age of 20 can perform breast self-exams (BRE) to search for any lumps in the underarm and breast tissue. However, while there has been widespread promotion of breast self-examination as a method to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, new research suggests that breast-self exams may not decrease deaths from breast cancer and may actually have a harmful effect by increasing the number of unnecessary biopsies performed.
The general conclusion among experts turns out to be that breast self-exams are optional. But what is not optional is “breast awareness,” or simply being familiar with the normal feel of your breasts.
Your breasts, for instance, can normally vary in sensitivity and texture at different times in your menstrual cycle and different life stages. By examining your breasts regularly in a way that’s comfortable for you, you’ll be able to spot anything out of the ordinary right away.
If a lump is found, see your physician for a more thorough examination. Clinical Breast Exams (CBE), performed by a physician, should be given every 3 years for women 20-39 years of age, and yearly for women 40 and over. Some experts also recommend yearly mammograms (x-ray of the breast) for women 40 and over.
There is, however, controversy surrounding the mammogram’s effectiveness and safety. The radiation created by the mammogram can cause cell mutation and the pressure from the machine can actually spread cancerous cells.
In addition, mammogram interpretation is questionable. The journal Archives of Internal Medicine performed a study of 108 radiologists’ interpretations and diagnoses of 79 previously interpreted mammograms. Results showed that cancer went undetected in 21% of the films. The radiologists misdiagnosed cancer in 10% of women who were actually cancer-free, and found 42% of benign lesions to be cancerous.
Thermography is a non-harmful (no radiation involved) and extremely effective alternative to the mammogram. Very early detection is possible through thermography — years earlier than a BSE or a mammogram. This screening procedure uses thermal imaging to easily detect cancerous cells.
4. Cervical Cancer Screening
A conventional pap test will screen for cervical cancer. This test should be done yearly, starting 3 years after first vaginal intercourse, no later than 21 years of age. Women over 30 who have had 3 normal pap tests in a row can do a pap test every 2-3 years. Women over 70 who have had 3 normal pap tests in a row may choose to stop screening altogether.
According to the American Cancer Society, women over the age of 35 should also consider having an endometrial biopsy each year to screen for endometrial cancer. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether regular biopsies in the absence of any symptoms (such as unexpected bleeding or spotting) is the right choice for you, as biopsies may also have a downside. A tumor may need to be punctured four to six times to retrieve an adequate amount of tissue for diagnostic purposes, and some experts believe this can spread cancer if it is present, either into the track formed by the needle or by spreading cells directly into the bloodstream.
5. Lung Cancer Screening
It is not yet known if current cancer screenings can accurately detect lung cancer. Physicians use chest x-rays, sputum cytology (checking phlegm for cancerous cells), and CAT scans (a combination of detailed x-ray images) in an attempt to screen for lung cancer. The downside is that these exams typically do not show the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous abnormalities, and if an abnormality is found, a biopsy is usually necessary to determine whether or not it is cancerous.
Cancer screenings can help you detect cancer, but they won’t help you prevent it. Exercising, eating right and avoiding environmental toxins will help you to do that.
There is some evidence that supports the idea that these exams detect cancer earlier than without any screening, but there is also a risk of unnecessary biopsies, or even potentially spreading cancerous cells via biopsy, as discussed above.
6. Colorectal Cancer Screening
For men and women over 50, there are a number of tests used to screen for colorectal cancer. A barium enema, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy, used in conjunction with a DRE have been shown to detect early cancer and polyps. The Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) as well as the Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) should be used yearly to test for early cancer (not polyps, which could turn into cancer). The FOBT and the FIT are take-home multiple sample methods. The colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy employ a long, small, flexible tube with a video camera attached to examine the large colon. The colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years, the sigmoidoscopy (investigates a smaller area of the colon than the colonoscopy) every 5 years.
Tests should begin after the age of 50, according to a study done by Francis M. Giardiello, MD, of The John Hopkins University. Talk to your doctor about which test(s) are right for you.
All of these screenings have been shown to reduce the risk of dying from cancer by detecting the disease early. However, a Harvard study of malpractice reported that cancer was the most misdiagnosed illness in the U.S. due to doctors’ failure to follow the appropriate cancer screening guidelines.
There can be grave consequences if cancer is present and goes undetected due to a physician’s error in the screening process. The longer cancer goes untreated, the higher the risk of mortality. Misinterpreted mammograms, meanwhile, can lead to unnecessary biopsies that are expensive and cause anxiety, pain, and potential physical harm.
Tips to Prevent Cancer Naturally
In addition to screening for early cancer detection, cancer prevention and risk reduction is something that can be worked toward every day:
- Get the right amount of sunlight. While too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, smart sun exposure can actually help to prevent it. Sun exposure is the body’s primary source of making vitamin D, and vitamin D reduces the risk of a host of cancers, including skin, colon, breast, prostate and others. The general rule of thumb? Get some sun every day, but don’t stay out long enough to get burned. Keep in mind that people with dark skin may need six to 10 times more sun exposure to get healthy levels of vitamin D than people with fair skin.
- Smoking is directly related to lung cancer, and smoking-related lung cancer is the most preventable disease. Quitting smoking is one of the best ways to lower your cancer risk.
- Lose Weight: Obesity is a risk factor for many types of cancer.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption: Drinking alcohol in excess increases your risk of various cancers.
- Eat More Fruits and Vegetables: They’re loaded with cancer-fighting nutrients, such as phytoestrogens and with antioxidants for fighting the damage caused to cells by excessive free radicals. Supplementing with antioxidants, especially when you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables is a smart move when you want to do everything you can to reduce cancer risk.
- Limit Intake of Processed Meats and Trans Fats: Processed meats, like lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon and sausages, have been linked to prostate and other cancers.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise will reduce the risk of just about every type of cancer.
- Avoid exposure to environmental chemicals and air pollution. As air pollution inside the home is one of the fastest-growing causes of disease, leading health organizations now strongly recommend you use a high-quality air purifier in your home.