Some common cancers are easier to treat and cure if they are found early. There are many different types of cancer, but most cancers begin when abnormal cells grow out of control and form a lump (called a tumor). The tumor can continue to grow until the cancer begins to spread to other parts of the body. If the tumor is found when it is still small and has not yet spread, curing the cancer can be easy. However, the longer the tumor goes unnoticed, the greater the chance that the cancer has spread. This usually makes treatment more difficult.
Talk to your doctor. He or she can help you understand your risk for cancer, especially if other members of your family have a history of cancer. Your doctor can also help you understand how your risk for cancer is affected by the following:
Depending on your age and your risk factors, your doctor may begin screening you for certain types of cancer. Screening means looking for cancer before it causes symptoms. Some doctors recommend that people who are at high risk or have a family history of cancer be screened regularly. The recommendations vary for different cancers.
To help find breast cancer early, your doctor will probably perform a clinical breast exam (where he or she checks your breasts for lumps) once every 3 years until you're 40 years old. All women age 40 and older should have a mammogram (an X-ray of your breasts) every 1-2 years with or without a clinical breast exam. If you are at high risk for breast cancer, such as a history of breast cancer in your family, your doctor may want you to have mammograms more often or start having them sooner.
To help find cervical cancer early, have Pap smears at least every three years. During a Pap smear, your doctor takes a sample of cells from your cervix to be tested. Your doctor may also collect cells from your cervix during a Pap test to be tested for the human papilloma virus, or HPV. There are 13 types of HPV that have been linked to cervical cancer, and this test can detect abnormal cells before cancer forms.
You should have your first Pap smear when you start having sex or by age 18. You should have a Pap smear at least once every 3 years, unless your doctor suggests that you need one more often. Keep having Pap smears throughout your life, even after menopause.
To help find prostate cancer early, first talk to your doctor about your risk. Factors such as family history, age and race play a part in the risk of prostate cancer.
The National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that men talk to their doctors about the pros and cons of screening.
If you decide to have screening, your doctor may examine your prostate by putting a gloved, lubricated finger a few inches into your rectum to feel your prostate gland. This is called a digital rectal exam. A normal prostate feels firm and rubbery. If there are hard spots on the prostate, your doctor may suggest additional testing to check for prostate cancer.
Another way to screen for prostate cancer is with a blood test called the PSA test. PSA is short for prostate-specific antigen. Men who have prostate cancer may have a higher level of PSA in their blood. However, the PSA level can also be high because of less serious causes, such as infection.
Most colorectal cancers begin as a polyp (say “pahl-ip”). At first, a polyp is a small, harmless growth in the wall of the colon. However, as a polyp gets larger, it can develop into a cancer that grows and spreads. See your doctor if you have any of the following warning signs:
Tests used to screen for colorectal cancer include the following:
Colorectal cancer is more common in older people, so doctors usually begin screening people at age of 50. Some people have risk factors that make them more likely to get colorectal cancer at a young age. Screening should begin earlier in these people.
Talk to your family doctor to decide which screening tests you should have and how often you should be screened.
The best way to find skin cancer early is to keep an eye on your skin, especially moles. The ABCDE rule (see below) can help you remember what to look for when you're checking any moles on your skin. If you notice any of these signs, talk to your doctor right away.
A for asymmetry: A mole that, when divided in half, doesn't look the same on both sides.
B for border: A mole with edges that are blurry or jagged.
C for color: Changes in the color of a mole, including darkening, spread of color, loss of color, or the appearance of multiple colors such as blue, red, white, pink, purple or gray.
D for diameter: A mole larger than 1/4 inch in diameter.
E for elevation: A mole that is raised above the skin and has an uneven surface.