Cancer Screening- what is it?

Last article we looked at some of the words and meanings used when talking about cancer. This article aims to provide some explanation of what cancer screening is, and provide examples of common screening programs.

Cancer screening aims to detect cancer after it has formed, but before any noticeable symptoms have appeared. This is because the earlier cancer is identified, the more likely it is that the fight against cancer will be won. Not everyone who has a “positive” screen will have the disease. In many cases the screening will identify people who should have further more definitive testing to either make a diagnosis, or confirm that there is no cancer present.

So what makes a good screening program?

A successful screening program concentrates on diseases which are the more common in society and which benefit from early treatment. Screening is usually aimed at a large proportion of the community and as such should be relatively easy to undertake. The screening program should be harm free, and as accurate as possible.

Mammography (BreastScreen) is a well known example of a large screening program. The program is targeted at women of a certain age group. The program aims to regularly test women to try to identify if there are any worrying changes to breast tissue. Participants undergo the mammogram even if they have not noticed any lumps in their breast tissue. In the event that there were concerns further testing would be recommended.

Faecal Occult Blood testing is another example of a widespread screening program. In this program patient provide a faecal (stool) specimen and the aim is to identify people who have blood in their bowel motions that suggests bowel cancer may be present. The hidden or “occult” blood may be present for many months or even years before the patient notices any symptoms or sees blood in their bowel motions themselves. Blood in bowel motions may be caused by other conditions such as haemorrhoids or bowel inflammation and therefore further testing such as colonoscopy would normally be advised in the case of a positive result.

Cervical cancer and prostate cancer are other examples of cancers that are often screened for. In the future other screening programs may be developed.

People who are at high risk of certain cancers, for example, if a number of close relatives have been affected by a particular cancer, will often require closer monitoring than standard screening programs. Whilst cancer screening programs have made a positive impact on health in general no screening program will identify all patients with cancer. In the event that you have any symptoms or concerns about your health you should seek medical attention.

Living a healthy lifestyle is an important aspect in avoiding cancer. Smoking and alcohol contribute to many avoidable cases of cancer. Avoiding excessive sun exposure reduces the risk of developing skin cancer. In addition, regular exercise has also been linked with decreased risk of cancers such as breast and bowel cancer.

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