Cancer Screening Saves Lives
Like going to the dentist or changing the oil in your car, cancer screening should be a regular part of your life. Screening tests are used before a person has any symptoms to help find cancer early, when it may be easier to treat.
For more than 100 years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has helped lead an evolution in the way the world prevents, detects, treats, and thinks about cancer. As the nation’s preeminent cancer-fighting organization, ACS funds and conducts research, shares expert information, supports people with cancer, spreads the word about prevention, and through its advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action NetworkSM (ACS CAN), advocates for public policy change.
ACS develops and publishes cancer screening guidelines to provide health care professionals and the public evidence-based information about who should be screened, when they should be screened, and which screening tests are recommended. This work is vital because many people with cancer have a better chance of surviving it if the cancer is caught early when it might be easier to treat successfully. For example, the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer when it is found early is 91%. This is why ACS is also supporting a nationwide effort to raise public awareness about the risks of screening delays and encourage individuals to discuss routine preventive care with a doctor.
ACS knows that catching cancer early increases survival rates, so cancer prevention and early detection are central to our mission to save lives, celebrate lives, and lead the fight for a world without cancer. Early detection of cancer before symptoms appear has transformed the world of cancer care and has continued to play a critical role in the prevention of certain cancers for which screening is available.
Cancer mortality has declined in recent decades – 31% between 1991 and 2018 – due in part to progress in screening technologies, research, and the general population’s awareness and increases in screening services. That translates to approximately 3.2 million cancer deaths averted during that timeframe.
Specifically, cancer screening reduces mortality from cancers of the colon and rectum, breast, uterine cervix, prostate, and lung. Additionally, screening can prevent certain types of cancers (like colorectal and cervical cancers) through the identification and removal of precancerous lesions. The earlier a cancer is found, the more favorable the effects of treatment. In short, cancer screening helps save lives.
In February 2021, ACS kicked off a nationwide initiative to respond to the significant decline in cancer screening and care due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The overarching purpose of this ongoing initiative is to encourage individuals to continue seeking appropriate cancer screening and follow-up care even as the extreme adversities and uncertainties of the pandemic persist.
Is there something keeping me from getting screened?
In addition to disruptions to health care visits in the past 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many reasons people don’t get a cancer screening — procrastination, lack of insurance, lack of symptoms, and fear. These reasons are often based on emotional responses but can also stem from a larger, systemic issue: fear of finding something; shame of not catching it earlier; anxiety about not being able to afford screening or treatment; fear of provider care; guilt for lifestyle choices that may have contributed; and systemic racism.
We know barriers to screening are real but not insurmountable. It’s okay to be concerned about medical procedures, possible findings, affording tests, or even seeing a doctor. But knowing the current state of your health can make it easier to take care of any issues and can potentially lengthen or save your life.
If you have health insurance, ask about coverage for cancer screenings. Most screenings are covered by insurance or available at no cost. There might be costs for follow-up appointments and additional tests if they are needed, but most of the time tests results are normal and no additional testing is needed. If you don’t have health insurance, you can call your local health department for information or find low-cost screenings here: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm
Research reveals one in three people will face cancer in their lifetime. Yet, many wait until they have symptoms to visit a doctor. For people without symptoms, screening tests can check certain parts of the body at regular intervals to detect any changes that may develop into cancer and can catch cancer early when it may be easier to treat. You can get screened for common cancers like breast, colorectal, cervical, and lung through mammograms, colonoscopies or stool tests, Pap or Human papillomavirus (HPV) tests, and low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scan.
Cancer doesn’t wait. Neither should you. Fear can stop you from getting cancer screening. But it won’t stop cancer. Early detection can save your life.
When should I get screened?
Screening tests are used to find cancer before a person has any symptoms. Here are the ACS recommendations to help guide you when you talk to your doctor about screening for certain cancers. It’s a good idea to also talk about risk factors such as lifestyle behaviors and family history that may put you or a loved one at higher risk.
Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, but many women with breast cancer have no symptoms. This is why regular breast cancer screening is so important.
The goal of screening tests for breast cancer is to find it before it causes symptoms (like a lump that can be felt). Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease in people who don’t have any symptoms. Early detection means finding and diagnosing a disease earlier than if you’d waited for symptoms to start.
Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are some of the most important factors in predicting the prognosis (outlook) of a woman with this disease.
These guidelines are for women at average risk for breast cancer. For screening purposes, a woman is considered to be at average risk if she doesn’t have a personal history of breast cancer, a strong family history of breast cancer, or a genetic mutation known to increase risk of breast cancer (such as in a BRCA gene) and has not had chest radiation therapy before the age of 30.
• Women between 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year.
• Women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.
• Women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year, or they can choose to continue yearly mammograms. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.
All women should understand what to expect when getting a mammogram for breast cancer screening – what the test can and cannot do.
Colorectal cancer incidence declined among adults aged 50 and older in the last 15 years, and mortality rates dropped by 55% from 1970 to 2018, with a substantial fraction of these declines due to screening.
• For people at average risk for colorectal cancer, the ACS recommends starting regular screening at age 45. This can be done either with a sensitive test that looks for signs of cancer in a person’s stool (a stool-based test), or with an exam that looks at the colon and rectum (a visual exam). Talk to your health care provider about which tests might be good options for you, and to your insurance provider about your coverage. No matter which test you choose, the most important thing is to get screened.
• If you’re in good health, you should continue regular screening through age 75.
• For people ages 76 through 85, talk with your health care provider about whether continuing to get screened is right for you. When you are making your decision, consider your own preferences, overall health, and past screening history.
If you choose to be screened with a test other than colonoscopy, any abnormal test result needs to be followed up with a colonoscopy.
Cervical cancer can often be found early, and sometimes even prevented, by having regular screening tests. If detected early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable cancers.
• Cervical cancer screening should start at age 25. People under age 25 should not be tested because cervical cancer is rare in this age group.
• People between the ages of 25 and 65 should get a primary HPV (human papillomavirus) test done every 5 years. (A primary HPV test is an HPV test that is done by itself for screening. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved certain tests to be primary HPV tests.) If a primary HPV test is not available, a co-test (an HPV test with a Pap test) every 5 years or a Pap test every 3 years are still good options.
• The most important thing to remember is to get screened regularly, no matter which test you get.
• People over age 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing in the past 10 years with normal results should not be tested for cervical cancer. Once testing is stopped, it should not be started again. Those with a history of a serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 25 years after that diagnosis, even if testing goes past age 65.
• People whose cervix has been removed by surgery for reasons not related to cervical cancer or serious pre-cancer should not be tested.
• People who have been vaccinated against HPV should still follow the screening recommendations for their age groups.
Some individuals – because of their health history (HIV infection, organ transplant, DES exposure, etc.) – may need a different screening schedule for cervical cancer. Talk to a health care provider about your history.
As an organization, ACS is committed to ensuring that ALL people have a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer – regardless of income, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, or where they live. Thanks in large part to decades of work, a cancer diagnosis does not come without hope, and the cancer journey is not one that is traveled alone.
The ACS lifesaving mission moves all of us in every community closer to a world without cancer. Whether an individual wants to understand about getting screened or their diagnosis and treatment options, about how to cope with side effects or to find transportation to their cancer care appointment, ACS is here with answers.
For more cancer information, to donate, or to become a volunteer, please visit www.cancer.org/get-screened or call the National Cancer Information Center 24/7, 365 days a year at 1-800-227-2345.