What is cancer screening? Can all cancers be screened? Who needs cancer screening?
- Cancer screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. If a cancer is found early on a screening test, it may be easier to treat or cure. Once cancer becomes symptomatic, nine out of ten times, it is too late.
- There are very few cancers, which can actually be screened and detected much early. Fortunately the two most common and deadly cancers, which affect women, can be picked up very early on screening tests. In fact, the most common cancer in women in India, cancer of the cervix (lower part of the uterus), which kills a woman every 8 minutes, can be almost completely prevented with a vaccine (HPV vaccine) and a Pap test.
- Cancers of the breast, cervix and colon (large intestine) are the only three cancers for which American government strongly recommends screening the normal, healthy, average risk individuals with no symptoms. The other cancers that could be screened are prostate (in men), lung (in smokers) and skin cancer.
- In India, an expert panel of doctors recommend routine, regular cancer screening for breast, cervix and oral (mouth -given the excessive tobacco use in Indians) cancers.
- Cancer screening is both for people at high-risk and average risk of developing the above-mentioned cancers. Screening tests are usually done when one has no cancer symptoms.
It is important to remember that when your doctor suggests a cancer-screening test, it is not because he or she thinks you have cancer. In countries where cancer screening happens routinely, significant number of lives has been saved. There are different kinds of screening tests such as physical examination; medical procedures that test samples of blood, urine, stool; imaging procedures such as scans and X-rays.
In India, cancer of the cervix and breast are the two most common cancers in women. Fortunately, both of these cancers can be screened and detected early. Breast cancer screening with mammography (X-ray) is recommended for all women aged 50 to 74. Women between 20 and 50 years of age are advised to do a self-breast examination once a month and also have a mammogram from 50 years of age.
For cervical cancer screening, a Pap smear is recommended for all women (who have been sexually active) aged 21-65. One Pap test every 3 years is adequate. If both Pap test and HPV test (on the same sample) are carried out, one test every 5 years is sufficient.
Colon cancer screening, in the form of sending a stool sample for test is recommended once a year for all adults from age 50 until 75.
The success of screening depends on people taking up the offer of the test. Not so long ago, most cancers were in their deadliest, late stages by the time they were detected and treated. Although that is still true with some kind of cancers, with others such as breast, cervix, colon and prostate cancers, screening now makes it possible to find the cancers in their earliest stages.
In spite of the fact that screening tests can save lives, the uptake is usually poor. Having a screening test can be daunting. You don’t want to be a healthy person today and be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow. The fear of cancer is justifiable. But whilst a normal screening test is reassuring, an abnormal screening test perhaps saves your life.
At Apollo Cancer Institutes a comprehensive cancer health-check package, which includes screening for all the above-mentioned cancers costs about Rs 3100.
For further information on cancer screening or to discuss which cancer screening tests are best for you, please contact Dr Sai Lakshmi Daayana ( Gynaecology oncology, Apollo Cancer Institutes, Jubilee hills, Hyderabad )
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