Cancer, in its various forms, is scary. Though the medical world has come a long way in diagnosing and treating many forms of the disease, cancer remains something everyone wants to prevent — or if that’s not possible, find early and treat quickly.
What we all want is an early warning system — some sort of test that definitively reveals cancer’s presence. In fact, there are several tests, including mammograms, colonoscopies, and Pap smears, that can give that early warning: finding cancer before it can cause symptoms or, worse, before it spreads and cannot be contained, possibly leading to death.
However, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that many adults in the United States are not getting the recommended screening tests for breast, colorectal, and cervical cancers. The analysis found that:
- One in five women ages 21 to 65 reported not being up-to-date with cervical cancer screening.
- Nearly one in four women ages 50 to 74 say they are missing out on recommended mammograms, which can detect breast cancer.
- Two in five adults ages 50 to 75 reported not following clinical recommendations for colorectal cancer screening.
Cancer Screening Caveats
While the screening tests for breast, colorectal, and cervical cancers can and do help catch many cancers early, it’s important to know that none of them is 100 percent reliable.
All have the possibility of missing an existing cancer (a “false negative”) or detecting something that turns out to not to be cancer (a “false positive”).
Either of these erroneous results can be harmful:
- False positives can cause anxiety and lead to unnecessary procedures such as biopsies, which can cause bleeding, infection, and pain.
- False negatives can cause delays in treatment, possibly allowing cancer to spread before it is detected.
Screening tests may also be read or interpreted incorrectly, or their accuracy may be compromised by quirks in the technology or the machines used to conduct them.
Personal anatomical and physiological differences (how dense a woman’s breasts are, for example) may also affect the accuracy of screening test results.
The Cancer Screenings You Should Get
Doctors, scientists, biostatisticians, and epidemiologists have been working together to determine which cancer screening tests have the best chances of identifying true disease, so that measures can be taken to treat cancer before it spreads and causes much harm.
One such group is the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent body that thoroughly and systematically examines the medical evidence and periodically produces screening recommendations to help clinicians determine which screening tests to perform, when, to whom, and how frequently.
If you are an adult with an average risk for cancer (there are no particular factors that may make you more likely to have cancer, such as a family history), here are some cancer screening tests all professional societies agree you should consider and discuss with your doctor, because evidence exists that they can save lives.