Cancer screening is the process of looking for cancer before a patient has any obvious signs or symptoms. The earlier cancer is detected and treated, the higher the likelihood that it can be cured. Cancer screening includes a variety of activities — one of the most basic is having regular physical examinations. Other screening tools include X-rays or imaging studies — like mammograms for breast cancer — blood tests and urine tests. Genetic testing can identify specific genetic risks of certain cancers because of mutations in the genes.
Men and women are susceptible to some of the same cancers, but their risks may be different. For example, women are much more likely to develop breast cancer, so mammograms are routinely recommended for women but not for men. The biggest difference is in cancer screening of the reproductive organs. Men are at risk of prostate cancer, while women need regular Pap smears and pelvic exams because of the risk of uterine or ovarian cancer. In other respects, screening recommendations are the same.
The American Cancer Society currently has screening recommendations for breast, prostate, lung, colon, cervical, and uterine cancer. Screening recommendations vary by age. Mammography is the screening test of choice for breast cancer. Cervical cancer testing is recommended beginning at age 21; the Pap smear is the standard test. Although routine screening for uterine cancer is not recommended for most women, those who have an increased high risk may need a yearly endometrial biopsy. Beginning at age 50, all men and women should be screened for colon and rectal cancer and for the polyps that may precede these cancers. A colonoscopy is the screening test of choice, but other screening tests are available. All those who have smoked the equivalent of two packs a day for 30 years should have an annual low-dose CT scan. Routine prostate screening with a PSA test is no longer recommended, but men who are at higher risk may need a PSA test and a rectal exam.
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