In many cases, the sooner cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better a person's chance for a full recovery. If you develop cancer, you can improve the chance that it will be detected early if you have regular medical checkups and do certain self-exams. Often a doctor can find early cancer during a physical exam or with routine tests, even if a person has no symptoms. Some important medical exams, tests, and self-exams are discussed on this page. The doctor may suggest other exams for people who are at increased risk for cancer.
Ask your doctor about your cancer risk, problems to watch for, and a schedule of regular checkups. The doctor's advice will be based on your age, medical history, family history, and other risk factors. The doctor also can help you learn about self-exams. (More information and free booklets about self-exams are available from the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service).
Many local health departments have information about cancer screening or early detection programs. The Cancer Information Service also can tell you about such programs.
Exams For Both Men And Women
Skin - The doctor should examine your skin during regular checkups for signs of skin cancer. You should also check regularly for new growths, sores that do not heal, changes in the size, shape, or color of any moles, or any other changes on the skin. Warning signs like these should be reported to the doctor right away.
Colon and Rectum - Beginning at age 50, you should have a yearly fecal occult blood test. This test is a check for hidden (occult) blood in the stool. A small amount of stool is placed on a plastic slide or on special paper. It may be tested in the doctor's office or sent to a lab. This test is done because cancer of the colon and rectum can cause bleeding. However, noncancerous conditions can also cause bleeding, so having blood in the stool does not necessarily mean a person has cancer. If blood is found, the doctor orders more tests to help make a diagnosis.
To check for cancer of the rectum, the doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels for any bumps or abnormal areas. A digital rectal exam should be done during regular checkups.
After age 50, you should have either a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, or a colonoscopy every 10 years. In this exam, the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light to look inside the rectum and colon for abnormal areas.
Mouth - Your doctor and dentist should examine your mouth at regular visits. Also, by looking in a mirror, you can check inside your mouth for changes in the color of the lips, gums, tongue, or inner cheeks, and for scabs, cracks, sores, white patches, swelling, or bleeding. It is often possible to see or feel changes in the mouth that might be cancer or a condition that might lead to cancer. Any symptoms in your mouth should be checked by a doctor or dentist. Oral exams are especially important for people who use alcohol or tobacco products and for anyone over age 50.
Exams For Men
Prostate - Men over age 40 should have a yearly digital rectal exam to check the prostate gland for hard or lumpy areas. The doctor feels the prostate through the wall of the rectum.
Testicles - Testicular cancer occurs most often between ages 15 and 34. Most of these cancers are found by men themselves, often by doing a testicular self-exam. If you find a lump or notice another change, such as heaviness, swelling, unusual tenderness, or pain, you should see your doctor. Also, the doctor should examine the testicles as part of regular medical checkups.
Exams For Women
Breast - When breast cancer is found early, a woman has more treatment choices and a good chance of complete recovery. It is, therefore, important that breast cancer be detected as early as possible. The National Cancer Institute encourages women to take an active part in early detection. They should talk to their doctor about this disease, the symptoms to watch for, and an appropriate schedule of checkups. Women should ask their doctor about:
- Mammograms (x-rays of the breast);
- Breast exams by a doctor or nurse; and
- Breast self-examination (BSE)
A mammogram can often show tumors or changes in the breast before they can be felt or cause symptoms. However, we know mammograms cannot find every abnormal area in the breast. This is especially true in the breasts of young women. Another important step in early detection is for women to have their breasts examined regularly by a doctor or a nurse.
Between visits to the doctor, women should examine their breasts every month. By doing BSE, women learn what looks and feels normal for their breasts, and they are more likely to find a change. Any changes should be reported to the doctor. Most breast lumps are not cancer, but only a doctor can make a diagnosis.
Cervix - Regular pelvic exams and Pap tests are important to detect early cancer of the cervix. In a pelvic exam, the doctor feels the uterus, vagina, ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, and rectum for any change in size or shape.
For the Pap test, a sample of cells is collected from the upper vagina and cervix with a small brush or a flat wooden stick. The sample is placed in a glass slide and checked under a microscope for cancer or other abnormal cells.
Women should start having a Pap test every year after they turn 18 or become sexually active. If the results are normal for 3 or more years in a row, a woman may have this test less often, based on her doctor's advice.