Cancer: What You Need to Know

Cancer Detection

Your doctor can help discover whether you have cancer by taking a detailed history, physical examination, imaging studies and laboratory tests. Your doctor will ask you questions about your general health, medications you may be taking, your family history, and your work history (environmental exposure to carcinogens, et cetera). You will be asked if you have any symptoms that may lead to a diagnosis of cancer, such as, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, night sweats, cough, blood found in vomit, urine or after bowel movements, and persistent pain. Inform your doctor if you have a painless ulcer in the mouth or on your skin that does not heal.

Your doctor will also do a complete physical examination, with special attention paid to the lymph nodes (in the neck, under the arms, et cetera), skin, lungs, breasts, genitals, and prostate (in men). Suspicious growths that may be potential tumors are often removed (using and excisional or incisional biopsy) or sampled (using a fine needle aspiration biopsy) and sent to a laboratory to be identified. A biopsy can also be obtained with the aid of a procedure known as endoscopy, where a tiny camera is used to view a suspicious lesion. Blood tests can help determine the extent or stage of certain cancers, and other abnormal findings correlated with different types of cancer. Imaging studies like X-rays, MRI, bone scans, or ultrasound can often determine the location and other characteristics of a tumor.

The American Cancer Society recommends screenings for certain types of cancer. Breast cancer should be tested for by self-examination every month for women over 18. Examination of the breasts by your doctor should be completed every three years for women between the ages of 18 and 40, then every year after age 40. A mammogram should be taken between the age of 35 and 40 as a baseline, then every 1 to 2 years between ages 40 to 49, and then annually after age 50. Women should also receive a Papanicolaou (Pap) smear to screen for cervical cancer annually between the ages of 18 and 65. An evaluation of the pelvis to screen for cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancer should be preformed every 1-3 years between the ages of 18-40, then annually.

For men, screening for prostate cancer should be completed yearly after age 50 (45 for high risk individuals), which includes rectal examination and a blood test for prostate specific antigen (PSA). Screening for rectal and colon cancer should be done with a rectal examination annually after age 40, with stool examination annually after age 50, and with sigmoidoscopy every 3 to 5 years after age 50.

In the next section, we'll look at cancer treatments.