Cancer screening tests are all about detecting cancers early before they grow, spread and become symptomatic.
Early detection is vital as this often allows for curative treatment and a good prognosis. Some tests are routine, such as a Pap smear test as part of your regular gynae check-up. While others are done as a general precaution at certain ages, and if you have a high-risk for cancer, for example a strong family history, your doctor will advise when to screen and how often. You need to understand your risks of developing a certain cancer, and the pros and cons of each screening test.
The age when to do your first mammogram differs according to different guidelines but generally should be done at age 40 or 50, depending on your risk, and then continue every year or as advised by your healthcare provider. Self-breast examination is something every person should know how to do. It’s important to know how your breasts normally look and feel and to report any changes right away.
A prostate specific antigen (PSA) test and a digital rectal examination (DRE) should be done from the age of 40 in black African men and in men who have a family history of prostate and/or breast cancer in a first degree relative. For all other men, from the age of 45.
A Pap smear test should be done from when you become sexually active or from the age of 21, every three years, unless you’re HIV positive (would be at a younger age). These tests need to continue until age 65. You don’t need a Pap smear if you’ve had a hysterectomy. HPV vaccinations have been shown to be highly effective in preventing the development of cervical cancer. Vaccinate both girls and boys at ages 9 and over.
Screening for colon cancer should start at age 45/50 unless you have a known high risk. There are various tests that can be used, with the most common being a colonoscopy. It’s important to note that the incidence of colon cancer has increased in younger individuals, so if you have any symptoms before that age to always seek help as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, there are no screening tests for other cancers and that is why it’s important to be aware of your risk and see a doctor if you have any worrisome symptoms.
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