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Cancer Screenings: Understanding the Pros and Cons

This article originally published on Get Healthy Stay Healthy.

When it comes to your health, what you don’t know can hurt you. That’s why doctors recommend cancer screenings. These tests look for signs of cancer before you have any symptoms. Cancer screenings can help find the disease at an early stage, when it may be easier to treat or cure. That’s why screenings can be powerful tools in preventing deaths from cancer. Screenings don’t diagnose cancer. Instead, they help your doctor see if you need more tests. For example, a mammogram may find a breast lump, but a lump doesn’t always mean you have breast cancer. You would need a biopsy or another diagnostic test to find out if the lump is cancerous.

What Kinds of Cancer Screenings Are Available?
Cancer screening tests include:

  • Physical exams, that check for signs of disease, like lumps and skin abnormalities or changes
  • Lab tests, such as tissue and blood samples or genetic tests that look for changes or irregularities in your genes that are linked to certain types of cancer
  • Imaging procedures, such as mammograms, which take pictures of the inside of your body

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends certain screenings. These include mammograms for breast cancer, Pap smears for cervical cancer, and colonosocopies for colorectal cancer. Your doctor may suggest other screenings for lung, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancer. These tests may be beneficial; however, some experts and organizations (including the CDC) believe more research should be done to confirm whether these tests actually help prevent cancer deaths.

What Are The Risks of Cancer Screenings?

Cancer screenings have many benefits, but you should also be aware of their potential risks:

  • Some screenings may cause potential problems or side effects. Screenings for colon cancer, for example, can cause tears in the lining of the colon. You need to understand the potential risks of any screening you’re considering. You should also ask your doctor to help you weigh those risks against the benefits
  • False-positive results are possible. Test results can sometimes indicate an abnormality, even if your body is cancer-free. A false positive can lead to more tests—with more potential risks—as well as unnecessary anxiety
  • False-negative results can happen. Test results may be normal even though you have cancer. False-negative results could make you ignore symptoms that appear. Or they could keep you from talking with your doctor because you think everything is OK

Which Cancer Screenings Do I Need?
So which screenings should you consider? That depends on several factors, such as your age, gender, and risk factors for certain cancers. To learn which screenings may be best for you, visit the American Cancer Society.

1. National Institute of Cancer. Cancer screening overview (PDQ) – patient version. Accessed December 27, 2012.

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