No matter how healthy we live, cancer can touch our lives. Two out of five Americans will receive a diagnosis of cancer at some point in their lives. One of the best ways to improve our survival chances is to discover cancer as early as possible. We do this with preventive screening exams.

What is a Preventive Screening Exam?

A preventive screening exam looks for a disease, or signs of a disease, in a person who has no symptoms or history of that disease. Preventive screenings allow doctors to detect conditions before symptoms appear, which increases the likelihood of effective treatment.

Recommendations for preventive screening exams come from various groups of experts, but the two most notable in the US are the US Preventive Services Taskforce (USPSTF)[1] and the American Cancer Society (ACS)[2].  The USPSTF assigns letter grades to their cancer screening recommendations and the ACS publishes expert opinions on a wide array of cancer screening tests.

What are the Goals of a Good Screening Exam?

A screening exam should be easy to administer and interpret, and of course, should maximize accurate results. Also, if a test is positive, the next steps should result in actions that will increase a person’s lifespan and/or improve his or her physical condition. Although these points seem obvious, make sure you understand the accuracy, limitations, risks, and benefits of any test you consider.

Talk to Your Doctor About Your Cancer Screening Indications

Published recommendations apply to people without significant family history or other substantial risk factors, such as lifestyle exposures or previous medical conditions. Having a doctor who can help you make decisions about screening tests as they apply to your personal situation is important.

When discussing specific cancer screening tests with your doctor, here are some specific questions to help the dialogue:

  • What cancers do you recommend I be screened for at this time?
  • Exactly what does a particular screening test look for?
  • How reliable is the test – what are the rates of false positives and false negative results?
  • Are there risks or pain associated with a given test?
  • If a test were positive, what would the next steps be?
  • What is the cost of the test, and is it covered by insurance?
  • What are the risks of forgoing or delaying the test until a later time?
  • When will the results be available?

Recommended Cancer Screening

Screening exam recommendations differ based on age, gender, and family history. While routine physical exams are helpful in discovering many types of cancer, other screenings involve specific lab or diagnostic tests. For a helpful overview of cancer screening strategies tailored to your age, gender, and lifestyle risks, visit the American Cancer Society’s Early Detection Guidelines.[3]

Lead a Healthy Lifestyle

In addition to appropriate screening, leading a healthy lifestyle is an important way to improve your chances of living a cancer-free life.

Along with the obvious strategy of avoiding tobacco products, the American Institute for Cancer Research[4] offers the following 10 Lifestyle Recommendations to reduce Cancer Risk.

  1. Be a Healthy Weight
  2. Be Physically Active
  3. Eat a Diet Rich in Whole Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, and Beans
  4. Limit “Fast Foods” and other Processed Foods
  5. Limit/Avoid Red and Processed Meat
  6. Limit/Avoid Sugar-Sweetened Drinks
  7. Limit/Avoid Alcohol
  8. Do Not Rely on Supplements for Cancer Protection
  9. For Mothers – Breastfeed Your Baby if Possible
  10. After a Cancer Diagnosis, Follow Above Recommendations

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