Catching cancer early is the best way to initiate effective treatment. When cancer is caught in early stages, the cancer does not have time to grow and spread, and can be combated more easily. There are many types of tests that are performed with the intention of catching cancer early.
Testing to Catch Cancer Early
When tests are done to check for cancer and there are no symptoms, it is called screening. Not all types of cancer can be detected through screening tests yet, but physicians and scientists are continually working on new ways to detect cancer in early stages. These tests are recommended by doctors in the course of annual physical exams, so that the cancer can be caught while the patient is still healthy. If there is a family history of cancer, patients should alert the physician, as some may be more genetically prone to certain types of cancer.
Screening tests are used to catch these types of cancer early:
- Lung cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Breast cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Colorectal Cancer
- Skin cancer
If tests are done because there are symptoms, a diagnostic test is used. These are typically more specific than screening tests. Lab tests are done on blood, fluid, and urine to check organ function.
Lab tests that are used to catch cancer early include:
- Complete blood count
- Blood protein testing
- Tumor marker tests
- Urine Cytology
Blood tests can show any peculiarities in numbers of different types of blood cell and abnormalities in the cells. Blood tests may also detect a chemical that is put off by tumors, as well as levels of protein that may be influenced by the presence of cancer. Radiology and other imaging techniques may also be used to test for the presence of cancer.
Interpreting Abnormal Test Results
If test results are abnormal, it may not necessarily indicate cancer. Different eating habits, body type, and genetics may cause blood tests to display different results for different patients. Further tests, such as biopsies, are usually necessary to definitively diagnose cancer. During a biopsy, a piece of tissue is taken from the suspicious area, and the tissue is examined under a microscope for abnormalities.
Different types of biopsies that are used to remove tissue include:
- Core needle biopsy
- Vacuum-assisted core biopsy
- MRI guided biopsy
- Surgical or open biopsy
- Fine needle aspiration biopsy
- Stereotactic core needle biopsy
Which kind of biopsy is used depends on the type of tissue that the cancer is prevalent in, and where in the body it is located. If cancer is suspected inside of the digestive tract, a biopsy may be done using an endoscope. This thin tube is run through the digestive tract, and then tools are inserted into the tube, and used to remove tissue. A tiny camera allows the physician to see during the procedure, and may be helpful in detecting further abnormalities.
Patients’ Role in Catching Cancer Early
Patients play the largest role in catching cancer early. Patients should actively pursue yearly screenings and conduct certain tests, such as breast exams, at home periodically. Patients should be vigilant for signs of cancer, being sure to alert a physician at the first signs of abnormality.
Common symptoms that may be an early indication of cancer include:
- Thickening or lump in the breast or other fatty tissue
- Change in a mole
- Change in bowel or bladder habits
- Persistent cough
- Bleeding that cannot be otherwise explained
While these symptoms are not always an indication of cancer, patients should not dismiss these symptoms without further testing. Cancer is not generally painful in early stages, so patients should not be mislead by mildness of symptoms. Patient honesty about symptoms and family history make it much easier for doctors to catch cancer early.
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