Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Cancer screening and prevention

Screening tests can help find cancer at an early stage, before symptoms appear. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat or cure. By the time symptoms appear, the cancer may have grown and spread. This can make the cancer harder to treat or cure.

It is important to remember that when your doctor suggests a screening test, it does not always mean he or she thinks you have cancer. Screening tests are done when you have no cancer symptoms.

Screening tests include the following:

  • Physical exam and history - an exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual; a history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken
  • Laboratory tests - medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine or other substances in the body
  • Imaging procedures - procedures that take pictures of areas inside the body
  • Genetic tests - tests that look for certain gene mutations (changes) that are linked to some types of cancer. (To make an appointment for a genetic test, contact the Familial Cancer Clinic at VCU Massey Cancer Center at 804-828-5116.) 

Screening tests have risks.

While screening procedures can provide great benefits, it is important to consider the other side of the coin. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to decrease the chance of dying from cancer. It is important to consult your physician about risks and side effects, and how they stack up against potential benefits.

  • Some screening tests can cause serious problems.
  • False-positive test results are possible.
  • False-negative test results are possible.

Finding the cancer may not improve the person's health or help the person live longer.

Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. There is no way to know if treating the cancer would help the person live longer than if no treatment were given. Also, treatments for cancer have side effects.

For some cancers, finding and treating the cancer early does not improve the chance of a cure or help the person live longer.