Doctor and Patient

More and more people are enjoying long, full lives after cancer. Advances in treatment options and increased screenings are helping to boost survival rates for many types of cancer. Finding cancer early increases your chances of beating it. For example, breast cancer has a 99% five-year survival rate when found before it spreads. For colorectal cancer, it’s 90% when found at an early stage.

Early detection can also decrease the intensity of treatments. When cancer spreads beyond the initial tumor, you need more treatments or more complex surgery to treat it.

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How to Detect Cancer Early

The best way to find cancer early is through regular screenings, both at home and through your doctor.

At-home screenings

Set a reminder for yourself monthly to do a quick body check for:

  • Breast cancer: Be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel. Call your doctor if you notice any changes, such as lumps, swelling, or puckered skin.
  • Testicular cancer: Feel for lumps, which are the earliest signs of testicular cancer.
  • Skin cancer: Check your skin for moles that have changed, scaly patches of skin, or wounds that won’t heal. Have any suspicious areas checked out by a dermatologist.

Routine Recommended Screenings

Experts suggest that you get regular screenings for cancer at your doctor’s office or at an imaging center. Use your phone to keep reminders to make these appointments, including:

  • Mammogram: Women should get a yearly mammogram to screen for breast cancer starting at age 45. You may start earlier if you’re at higher risk.
  • Colonoscopy: Men and women should have a colonoscopy to screen for colon and rectal cancer starting at age 45. If you’re at high risk, you may want to start screening earlier.
  • Pap test with HPV test: Women should have a Pap test to screen for cervical cancer starting at age 21. A Pap test plus a human papillomavirus (HPV) test — called co-testing — is the preferred way to find early cervical cancers or pre-cancers in women age 30 and older. HPV is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, and detecting HPV early helps prevent the development of cervical cancer. HPV testing begins at age 30. Women older than age 65 who’ve had regular screenings for the past 10 years with normal results do not need to continue getting screened for cervical cancer.

Depending on your risk factors, you may also want to have screenings for:

  • Prostate cancer: Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests help men detect prostate cancer. While regular screenings aren’t right for everyone, your doctor can guide you on whether including a PSA test in your screening schedule is right for you.
  • Ovarian cancer: The American Cancer Society hasn’t found that screening tests greatly improve survival rates for ovarian cancer, the rates do increase dramatically when it’s found at an early stage. Women who are at high risk for developing ovarian cancer should talk with their doctor about potential screening. Women at high risk include those with a family history of ovarian, breast, or colon cancer, and those with a BRCA gene mutation.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer screening isn’t right for everyone. But if you’re a frequent smoker, you may benefit from routine screening or a low-dose CT scan to detect lung cancer earlier.
  • Skin cancer: If you have fair skin, light hair, or blue eyes, you may have a higher risk of skin cancer. Schedule an annual body scan with a dermatologist to check for early signs of skin cancer.

All screening tests carry a risk of false positives, which is when the test says you have cancer but you don’t. For most screening tests and at-home exams, the benefits of performing them outweigh the risks of a false answer.

Genetic Testing and Early Detection

Although most cancers are not inherited, having specific genetic mutations can greatly increase your risk of developing cancer. If you have parents, siblings, or children with a certain type of cancer, you may want to consider genetic testing.

Undergoing genetic testing is a big decision. Genetic testing tells you whether you may be at higher risk. It’s not a guarantee you’ll get cancer, and knowing the results can cause stress and anxiety. But your results can also empower you to take early preventive action early. Talk to a genetic counselor about the risks and benefits before undergoing genetic testing for cancer.

Finding cancer early saves lives. Talk to your doctor about your risk for common cancer types and how to set up a schedule for regular screenings.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

American Cancer Society. Facts & Figures 2020.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.