Cancer screening can be a confusing process, and it is often misunderstood. So we thought we would answer a few common questions people have about it.
What is screening?
Screening, in general, is using a test to find a specific disease or condition at an early point in the course of the disease. There are multiple types of screening tests available that are useful in finding several types of cancer.
Why is screening important?
Finding cancer early increases a patient’s chances of being cured. Additionally, less treatment may be needed to fight the cancer, and the treatment may not be as harsh.
What cancers currently have recommended screening tests?
Screening tests to find breast cancer, lung cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer are most commonly recommended to the appropriate groups of people. Prostate cancer screening can be performed, but the benefits are more controversial.
Discuss with your doctor which specific screening tests will benefit you. The medical community does not always agree on which tests truly offer benefits when looking for a particular disease. Furthermore, recommendations vary based age and risk for that cancer, so the recommendations for each test change frequently. However, the medical community does agree that there are clear benefits for certain screening tests (like the ones listed above).
Why are there only screening tests for some cancers?
Many people think doctors should always be able to find a condition or cancer early. However, very few conditions can actually be found through screening. Screening recommendations involve complex evaluation of risks to both patients and society.
For example, the cost of screening plays a role. Think about breast cancer—every woman over the age of 45 (if not younger) is supposed to be screened every 2 years (if not more often). That’s a lot of people who need to receive a test (over 30 million women a year)! And, unfortunately, every test comes with financial, emotional, and medical costs.
When does a screening test become a recommendation?
Medical associations evaluate published scientific studies to make general recommendations or guidelines. The test must prove it is effective for a large number of people, and the government and insurance carriers must agree with its benefits.
Your doctor uses these guidelines to determine which tests are appropriate for you.
What are the criteria for a screening test?
The following are the (simplified) criteria a screening test must meet in order to be considered a screening test.1
- The condition doctors are looking for should be an important health problem.
- Patients need to be able to have the test close to where they live.
- The disease should be found in its early stage.
- The test should not be harmful and should be easy to perform.
- If a condition is found, it should have treatment available that will be very successful.
- Ideally, the cost of the test needs to be affordable.
In summary, a screening test needs to be relatively inexpensive, cause no significant harm, and be available to the people who need it. Once a condition is found, treatment needs to be available that will truly help the patient live longer.
Dr. Joe’s Words of the Day
To try and find a condition that is small or very treatable
Dr. Joe says: To examine the garden very carefully to find a dandelion while is it very small and easy to treat.
- Wilson JM, Jungner G. The principles and practice of screening for disease. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1968. (Public Health Papers no. 34)