The rate of cancer deaths has been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past thirty years. Today, the risk of cancer death is 33% lower than it was in 1991. There are a lot of reasons for this decline. Research has led to more effective treatments. Smoking rates have dropped significantly. And we’ve gotten much better at catching cancer earlier thanks to improvements in cancer screening.
When it comes to cancer treatment, time is a critical factor. Not only does early detection improve survival rates for some of the most common types of cancer, but it can also reduce the damage done to the body, the risk of complications and the cost of treatment. That’s why routine cancer screenings are an essential part of preventative care.
To learn what type of cancer screening is, you should discuss the following items with your doctor:
Assessing Your Cancer Risk
Anyone can develop cancer, but certain factors can increase the risk of certain cancers. Your doctor can help assess your cancer risk by examining your overall health, family history, age and lifestyle. For instance, adults in their 20s have a much lower risk of developing cancer than adults in their 50s. However, if a patient has a family history of certain cancers or engages in cancer-increasing behaviors, such as smoking, their doctor may suggest starting cancer screenings earlier.
Cancer Screening Guidelines and Recommendations
Thanks to ongoing research, we know more about cancer than ever before and continue to advance our knowledge. This means that recommendations for screening can change as we make new discoveries. Therefore, it is important that patients regularly check in with their primary care physician to see if new recommendations apply to them.
For example, the American Cancer Society recently broadened its recommendations for lung cancer screening to include current and former smokers between 50 – 80 years old. It has removed a stipulation that exempted people from screening if they had quit for longer than a specific period. According to the new guidelines, anyone who has a history of smoking a certain amount, no matter how long ago it was, should consider annual lung cancer screenings once they hit age 50. Both of these changes are the result of a deeper understanding of the dangers of smoking.
Screening Types and Risks
Options for cancer screening depend on the type of cancer being tested for. Some tests are noninvasive, like PAP smears for cervical cancer, while others, like colonoscopies for colon cancer, require sedation. Regardless of the type of screening, all come with an inherent risk. That’s why it’s important to discuss your options with your doctor, who can make recommendations based on your personal risk and health. For patients with a family history of a specific type of cancer, a screening test with a slightly higher risker, like a breast MRI, may offer benefits that outweigh the risks. At the same time, patients who have a weakened immune system or other risk factors may face unnecessary danger from undergoing certain cancer screenings.
If you decide to proceed with a cancer screening, be sure to talk through all the preparation, proceedings and post-treatment steps to know what to expect. Even in low-risk patients, the experience of screening can cause anxiety, so it helps to know what to expect. Ask your doctor how long results should take, how they will be made available to you, if they deliver negative results and what the next steps would be in the event of a positive result. Also, check with your health provider to see if your insurance covers a screening.
Cancer screening is an excellent tool for being proactive about your long-term health, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Talking with your doctor can help you understand the personal risk presented by your health and the options available to you, and it can provide you with recommendations on what is best for you.