Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Cancer screening: An overview

Cancer screening is the subject of much debate. As new research discoveries are made, organizations like the United States Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society have to reevaluate their screening guidelines based on the most current scientific evidence in order to ensure that patients are receiving the most up-to-date and well-informed recommendations.

Purpose of screening

Cancer screening aims to detect cancer before symptoms appear. Detecting cancer early is important, because often by the time symptoms appear, the cancer has already grown and spread and is more difficult to treat. 

Types of screening tests

There are many types of screening, which include:

  • Physical exams. While examining the body, physicians can check for general signs of disease, such as lumps, suspicious moles or anything else unusual.
  • Laboratory tests. Physicians can test samples of tissue, blood, urine or other substances to examine for potential cancer markers.
  • Imaging procedures. These tests take detailed pictures of areas inside the body. They include mammography, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and/or x-rays.
  • Genetic tests. Genetic tests can look for gene mutations that are linked to certain types of cancer, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, which greatly increase the risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer.

Why screening is important

Cancer screening is an important part of reducing the number of lives lost to cancer. Finding the cancer early, or in some cases preventing it altogether, is a benefit of cancer screening. Some screening tests, like colonoscopies, can find growths and remove them before they become cancerous and, generally, cancer treatment is more effective when the disease is found early. 

Discuss screening with your doctor

Screening can save lives, but it does involve risk. Risks of screening include anxiety, over-diagnosis, over-treatment, false positives or false negatives, and pain or discomfort. It’s important to make well-informed decisions and talk with your physician about your personal cancer risk and the screening tests from which you would most benefit. It is also vital to know your own body, be aware of abnormal changes and report them to your doctor.

To learn more about cancer screening, visit massey.vcu.edu/patient-care/prevention-screening.

Written by: Alaina Schneider

Posted on: June 3, 2014

Category: Prevention & control