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This is Only a Test (That Could Save Your Life)

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

As much as the holidays are a time for giving and celebrating, they are also a time for reflecting and taking stock. While you are busy giving to others, we urge you to consider an important gift for yourself: cancer screenings.

No one ever said, “It’s just what I’ve always wanted,” but everyone should consider these tests.

Screenings help detect cancer early, when it’s most treatable. There’s no question that cancer screenings can save lives. But what tests? When? These simple questions no longer have simple answers.

With better science, treatment advances and more research, screening guidelines continue to evolve. Recommendations from physician groups, cancer advocacy organizations and your personal doctor may vary.

The guidelines below can help clear up confusion about the most common cancer screenings.
SKIN CANCER: Everybody should check their skin for changes in freckles, moles and other skin markings monthly and report any changes to their physician.

COLORECTAL CANCER: Beginning at 50, everyone should screen for colorectal cancer with one of these options. Earlier screening may be warranted if you have a family history of colon cancer. Annual fecal occult blood tests (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) Every five years, a flexible sigmoidoscopy or a double-contrast barium enema Every 10 years, a colonoscopy or every five years, a virtual colonoscopy.

BREAST CANCER: Breast cancer screening guidelines vary. Family history is an important factor. Solid recommendations include: Women in their 20s should conduct monthly self-checks for lumps on and in their breasts and under their arms; changes in breast or nipple size or shape; skin changes; swelling and tenderness. Women in their 20s and 30s should have a clinical breast exam every three years. Women in their 40s should consider annual clinical breast exams and/or mammograms and, if physician recommended, an MRI. Women in their 50s should have annual mammograms. Women with a close relative diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50 should start annual mammograms 10 years before reaching that relative’s age at diagnosis.

CERVICAL CANCER: Even women who have received HPV vaccines should get cervical cancer screenings. Starting at age 21, women should have a Pap test every three years. Women in their 30s through age 65 should have a Pap test and a DNA HPV test every five years or only a Pap test every three years. After age 65, discuss the need for cervical cancer screenings with your physician.

PROSTATE CANCER: The PSA test is a blood test that measures levels of a protein produced by the prostate. Higher PSA levels indicate a higher likelihood that a man has cancer but other reasons may elevate PSA levels. The DRE (Digital Rectal Exam) also tests for prostate cancer. Beginning at age 50, men should discuss prostate cancer screenings with a physician. Men at high risk (African Americans and men with a family history of prostate cancer before age 65) should discuss with a physician whether screenings are appropriate beginning at age 45. Men with immediate family members with prostate cancer should discuss screenings with a physician beginning at age 40.

While you can’t be screened for every kind of cancer—at least not yet—researchers are working to establish tests for more cancer types. It’s important to maintain a regular screening schedule.  Consult your physician about the best screening schedule for your personal health and family history.

By Billie Marek, M.D., Texas Oncology–McAllen

 This story originally appeared in Healthy Magazine. To view this story, please click here.

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